The death of good music has been greatly exaggerated. Over the last year, just like in every year in recent memory, artists (and, it must be said, particularly young artists) have released so many stunning albums that keeping up with contemporary music is a practical impossibility. The following is thus an imperfect and very incomplete list of 25 (plus 1) of my favorite albums released in the last year. They are presented in no particular order.
What happens when one of the world’s greatest pianists meets one of his composer-idols? He records a very personal double album, which presents many of György Kurtág’s compositions along with more familiar offerings. Reportedly based on pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s childhood memories, he recorded both on grand and uprights pianos. This album is a fascinating study–one of many in Ólafsson’s discography–that explores musical connections across centuries.
Vikingur Ólafsson, From Afar
French composer Olivier Messiaen is one of my favorite composers of the 20th century and his brilliant Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus) has been woefully neglected on record if not in performance. The roughy two-hour cycle, played without break, is taxing on both performer and audience alike. But perserverence is richly rewarded, especially with this crystal-clear recording of Bertrand Chamayou’s performance. To my ears, Bertrand comes closest to unlocking the metaphysical truths about Messiaen’s faith that are embedded in this work.
Bertrand Chamayou, Messiaen: Vignt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
An important new recording of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 is reason enough the celebrate–it is in my opinion easily among the Top 20 compositions of all time, across all genres. Here, this titanic work–a quartet of truly symphonic pretensions–is paired with Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet No. 3, one of the composer’s most accessible works, and Silvestrov’s Quartet No. 1, which was, for me, a new work to discover. All three composers toiled under the most extreme circumstances, distrusted by their governments and, at least in Shostakovich’s case, fearful for their lives. Their struggle–reflected in the album’s title–is very much reflected in the Matangi Quartet’s performance.
Matangi Quartet, Outcast
In 2016, my wife returned from the Northeastern Regional Finals of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions–the most important singing competition in the opera world–and claimed to have heard “the next best thing.” If I was intrigued at first–I was postively floored when she reported that the singer in question was a countertenor. And if that wasn’t enough of a shock, she then reported that he was a “champion breakdancer from Poland.” I had the pleasure of hearing Jakub sing at the finals some months later (which he won) and had to agree–my wife was absolutely correct. Since that time, I’ve heard Jakub sing the title role in Jonathan Dove’s Flight at Julliard and Orpheus’ Shadow in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice at the Metropolitan Opera. He’s been awarded Singer of the Year awards and nominated for a Grammy. And that’s before he released this, his best album to date. A personal account of Polish art songs, Jakub effortlessly bridges the gulf between genres.
Jakub Józef Orliński & Michal Biel, Farewells
What if a vampire performed Bach? The lights would be dimmed, everything would be black and, as an immortal, the vampire would surely take his time. Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau may not be a vampire, but anyone lucky enough to catch him in concert might be excused for thinking otherwise. Slowing tempos to the extremes is not usually my jam, as it were, but I find myself returning to Rondeau’s bewitching recording more and more. Now, where’s that garlic?
Jean Rondeau, Bach: Goldberg Variations
Renaissance composer Josquin Desprez wrote history’s first hit, thanks the invention of the printing press. That hit, like so much of Josquin’s music, is deeply religious in nature. Presented here is the other side of Josquin, a collection of secular songs, mostly from his years in France. Evocative and transporting in equal measure.
Doulce Mémoire & Denis Raisin Dadre, Josquin Desprez: Tant vous aime
This next album just might be my favorite of the year. Thanks to Alex Ross for suggesting it. But what exactly is this? The music, for me, completely defies classification. On its face, it is a collection of duets composed by soprano Jane Sheldon based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1905 Book of Hours. Sheldon, who sings both parts, draws on influences from Hildegard von Bingen (who Sheldon cites) to Björk (who she does not). But genre? Who cares. Timeless, stunning, and absolutely magical.
Jane Sheldon, I am a tree, I am a mouth
If you were to design the dream opera star, he would be a tenor and look like a matinee idol. Enter Jonathan Tetelman. Here is his debut album. Watch. This. Space.
Jonathan Tetelman, Arias
I spent a good chunk of 2022 writing about composers who died too young, Mozart and Schubert first and foremost among them. By comparison, we have been truly blessed by the longevity and productivity of many of the greatest contemporary composers, including Steve Reich. This new album from the LA Philharmonic presents two of Reich’s most recent compositions–the first time either has been recorded. Like all of Reich’s music, the more you listen, the more that emerges as the strands that comprise Reich’s finely wrought textures become more apparent and the emotional coloration becomes more familiar. Hypnotic stuff.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Steve Reich: Runner/Music for Ensemble and Orchestra
Nothing is more boring–or more unnecessary–than another album of classical war horses with nothing new to say. Fortunately, the low cost of digitial production has allowed artists unprecedented freedom to explore soundscapes of thier own creation. On her most recent album, soprano Ruby Hughes covers nearly 500 years of music history, from the works of Purcell through a raft of contemporary British composers, including the titular song-cycle Echo, which was written for her. A strong contender for album of the year.
Ruby Hughes & Huw Watkins, Echo
Hilgegard von Bingen on electric guitar? I’m in. Sean Shibe continues to turn out thoughtful albums that shed new light on the classical repertorie.
Sean Shibe, Lost & Found
Did we need another recording of L’Estro Armonico? No. But the Concerto Italiano’s performance is such infectious fun that it easily finds its way onto this list.
Rinaldo Alessandrini & Concerto Italiano, Vivaldi/Bach
Clarinetist Pablo Barragán and pianist Sophie Pacini present a refined album of works (largely) composed during WWII, each of which pushes the boundaries of the “classical” genre.
Pablo Barragán & Sophie Pacini, Boundless
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is best know for his many film scores, but his posthumously released Drone Mass reveals a serious composer who had much more to say before his untimely death at 48. Drawing upon both Rennaisance polyphony and the spectral silences of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Jóhannsson layers in electronica to create a soundscape that is uniquely his own.
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Drone Mass
“Classical singer” Julia Bullock’s debut album is a showstopper. Possessed of a velvety, voluptuous sound, I could listen to Bullock sing the phone book. Thankfully, I don’t have to. On Walking in the Dark, Bullock selects music from across the spectrum, from Samuel Barber and John Adams to Billy Taylor and Connie Converse, finding the connective tissue that unites them all. The standout track is, unsurprisingly, Adams’ Memorial de Tlateloico from his El Niño oratorio–Bullock is a seasoned Adams peformer on the operatic stage. The album closes with Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Taking on a Nina Simone classic is the epitome of bravery and Bullock’s version is, at least for me, even more haunting and personal than Miss Simone’s. An instant classic that has found its way onto several of my playlists. More of this please!
Julia Bullock & Christian Reif, Walking in the Dark
Another contender for album of the year is Mari Samuelsen’s LYS, which is comprised of several short compositions that take us into a luminous soundscape rendolent of Philip Glass. The album contains arrangments of works by such diverse composers as the 12th century mystic and saint, Hildegard von Bingen, and modern day savant and goddess, Beyoncé, along with works by contemporary composers Caroline Shaw, Lera Auerbach and others. As the world turns dark, this album dares to let the light in.
Mari Samuelsen, LYS
Diverse voices are finally elbowing their way to center stage in contemporary music. Leading that charge is composer Nico Muhly, whose Two Boys created a sensation several years ago in the operatic world. Drawing from a variety of texts, Muhly’s song cycle Stranger is a haunting and moving presentation of the perspective of those at the fringes of society. Written for tenor Nicholas Phan, who sings with a uniquely tender vulnerability, and as supported by the brilliant Brooklyn Rider quartet, Muhly is revealed as the greatest songwriter of his age. In particular, Muhly’s setting of Lorne Ys My Liking, a 15th century Chester Mystery Play, stakes his claim as the true heir of Benjamin Britten.
Nicholas Phan, Stranger
Cellest Inabel Segev presents an album of 20 compositions completed during the pandemic year. The standout track here is Bruce Wolosoff’s Lacrymae for Cello Choir, which like all great music, will be eternally contemporary.
Inabel Segev: 20 for 2020 (2022 edition)
Back in 1994, I bought a CD from a new hot tenor sax player and was simply blown away. Heavily influenced by classic jazz, Joshua Redman’s debute with his quartet of up and coming stars showcased how the language of the past could be updated for the present. Having gone their separate ways, the quartet reunited two years ago. LongGone is their second reunion album. Fittingly, the best track on the new album is the nearly 13-minute long jam on Redman’s Rejoice. Rejoice indeed. This is jazz at its most essential.
Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, LongGone
It says something that in a year when Joshua Redman releases a fantastic album with his great quartet, that my favorite jazz album of the year was made by fellow tenor saxist JD Allen. Over 45 terse minutes, Allen meditates on the roots of American music, moving seemlessly in and out of jazz, blues, gospel, folk, and R&B. This is one to listen to with a good bottle of bourbon late in the night. Guitarist Charlie Hunter brings that extra special sauce to the group, but it is Rudy Royston’s drumming that stands out as the spine of the group. A tour de force that I have only begun to unpack.
JD Allen, Americana Vol. 2
caroline’s debut album defies classification and, frankly, I’m not sure what to make of it–only that I want to listen to it over and over again. Drawing from a wide array of influences–I hear Midwestern folk, 80s emo, the Velvet Underground, and a lot of Philip Glass–the eight musicians that comprise caroline weave a hypnotic spell over the listener. What is especially refreshing is the calculated casualness of the performance, which gives the music room to breath. The Beach Boys once sang “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” That’s sort of how I feel about this album–once you enter caroline’s world, the band takes you to far off and wonderful places.
Björk describes her tenth album as fungal funk. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. But trying to make sense of Björk or her music has never really been the point. Simply put, Björk is the most interesting artist in the pop genre and her albums are always a ton of fun. Fossora is no exception. A fun house of sound, Plant Björk is always a joy to visit.
What happens when two members of Radiohead go off to make an album with a different drummer? You get an album that sounds a whole lot like Radiohead. And that surely is a good thing. If John, Paul and George had gone off to make a record with Ginger Baker, would anyone have complained? Me neither. And, yet, surprises lurk here. First, and foremost, is the question of how any band fronted by Thom Yorke is called “The Smile”? Has rock great’s depressive found the silver lining? Not so much, as the lyrics attest. This is a false smile–someone assuring you that everything is fine when, in reality, we are all screwed. But if that mystery is solved, how do we explain Free in the Knowledge–a drop dead gorgeous ballad that is the worthy heir to Fake Plastic Trees, which is both my favorite Radiohead song and one that Thom Yorke has specifically disclaimed. Perhaps the answer lies in the final song, Skirting on the Surface, which closes with the utterly depressing summary of the state of the world in 2022: When we realize that we are broke and nothing mends, We can drop under the surface.
The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention
Spoon is one of my favorite bands and its 10th album is one of its strongest. There is no mistaking the Spoon sound, it is as unique and timeless as REM’s. Unlike REM, however, Spoon has multiple modes, depending on how much bass and other electronica creep into the track. But at its core, Spoon is Britt Daniel’s vocals backed by guitar, piano and a steady beat. One part funk, one part rock and one part folk–mix and stir to perefection. Start with Wild, as infectous a song as Spoon has ever turned out. And that is saying something.
Spoon, Lucifer on the Sofa
I really can’t explain how I went a decade without being aware of this band. It certainly isn’t their fault, having released a staggering 21 albums over the last decade. But I am thankful to the West Coast Physicist for turning me on to this incredible band. Laminated Denim, true to form, is the seecond a three albums released this fall. The album is equally divided across two 15-minute tracks. With its DNA rooted in pyschedelic rock, jam bands, progressive rock, among others, this album will no doubt feature on the next lazy sunny day out back.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Laminated Denim
The Professor was downright giddy to take me to my first Porcupine Tree concert. The brainchild of songwriter/singer/guitarist/sound engineer Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree occupies the relatively sparse ground at the intersection of metal and progressive rock. Loud, rhythmically complex, and largely atonal, Porcupine Tree’s recent music is a tough sell. But buried within those disonnances and thundering rhythms lie something nearly mystical that transcends the narrow label of progressive metal. And that’s reason enough to stretch a Top 25 list by one.
Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation
BONUS: While Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were recording as The Smile, Radiohead’s drummer was off making his second solo album. If the first song off that album (the full album is to be released in February 2023) is any indication, it is going to be a cracker.
Philip Selway, Check for Signs of Life