Playlist record reviews

Playlist – January 2023

Took a couple of weeks off and didn’t worry as much about trying to include all the great stuff I found on other’s year-end lists but also didn’t worry as much about some late-2022 stuff working its way onto this list. It feels good to get writing again. This took longer than usual because I reviewed or previewed seven events between the last week of January and the first week of February. As always, thank you for reading, listening, or both.

Best Of Playlist record reviews

Playlist 2022 – Parting Gifts

Probably the most popular or “popular” of the playlists I’ve done in the last few years, this is an acknowledgment of gratitude for people who made an impact on how I think about music, how I listen to music, contributed in a tangible way to songs and situations that gave me comfort or uplifted me. I’m sure there are people whose deaths I missed – and people I’m sure were important, but I didn’t have something to say about them.

And I want to take a moment to underscore that streaming is only a subset of what exists – Johnny Rebel (Sean Groves), who fronted Columbus mainstay Th’ Flyin’ Saucers, didn’t have anything available on Tidal but he’s one of the two of three people who meant the most to me in this category who passed this year. Similarly, Todd Flegle, who I knew best as a Taco Ninja founder but also did some excellent work behind the kit for several Columbus bands. A lot of people important to me died – musically, but also otherwise – this year, so let’s get down to it.

  • Jaimie Branch, “Prayer for Amerikkka Pt 1 and 2 (Live)” (Jaimie Branch) – As I said on the earlier lists, each of them this year starts with Jaimie Branch. In the month after her death, I reached for this instant classic, this raging hymn, this unstoppable groove, this cri de coeur so potent you could see it from the moon. I reached out for comfort and catharsis. Just as I did when it came out. Just as I’m doing right now. We’ll miss you, breezy; I wish I’d gotten to know you better, and I’m grateful for that little time and for your work. “This is a warning, honey.”
  • The Spinners, “Rubberband Man” (Thom Bell) – I came late to the Philly soul stuff – my Mom grew up as mostly an R&B (with country a close second) fan, but it was mostly Motown and Stax around my house as a kid. But in interviews with Elvis Costello and other people, my young self was a big fan of talking about the Spinners and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and especially on David Byrne’s Look Into the Eyeball that came out when I was 21, and my favorite songs were by the arranger I didn’t know well, Thom Bell, I went down a rabbit hole. Bell – with co-writers like the great Linda Creed on this song – created a whole sound world that feels familiar but also beautifully strange, and this extended track is a perfect example. The soaring melody and percussion fit together like silk cut into shapes that defy easy description.
  • Quincy Jones and his Orchestra, “Mohair Sam” (Dallas Frazier) – The great country songwriter Dallas Frazier was a constant presence through radio and my Grandmother’s record collection when I was a kid, especially the tribute to the funny pages’ time-traveling caveman “Alley Oop” and Oak Ridge Boys’ earworm “Elvira” but I always had an especially soft spot for the playboy anthem “Mohair Sam,” in its original recording by Charlie Rich, seeing the Texas band The Derailers do it at Little Brothers in my early 20s and a dozen other versions over the years. But this swinging instrumental adaptation from Quincy Jones might be the perfect distillation of the winking swagger and interesting twists and turns of the song.
  • The Supremes, “Love Child” (R. Dean Taylor) – I mentioned growing up with a lot of Motown as a kid, and then and now, some of my favorite stuff is the late ’60s and on, when they started venturing down new paths and fragmenting. This social justice tune from The Supremes was one of the songs I kept returning to on the Best Of, trying to make sense of it, and one of my perennial jukebox plays, written and produced by The Clan, including Taylor. (“Indiana Wants Me” damn near took this spot on the playlist)
  • Dean Martin, “Sleep Warm” (Marilyn Bergman) – After hearing Sinatra would sign off phone conversations with the exhortation to “Sleep warm,” I started doing the same in my late teens. I could have picked any of a dozen Marilyn Bergman songs written with her husband Alan and a variety of musical collaborators (Lew Spence here), but this original  (I think) Dean Martin version is a template for smooth ballads, of which few people ever came within striking distance.
  • Ronnie Spector, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (Ronnie Spector) – Someone else whose voice defined American music for generations, and one of my most treasured memories was seeing her make a surprise appearance at Ponderosa Stomp for two of those classics. But when I think of her, my mind goes early to this Joey Ramone/Daniel Rey-produced EP that came out in the 80s and blew me away. For me, this is the definitive version of one of my all-time favorite Johnny Thunders songs, finding depths of heartbreak and swagger that no one else quite has.
  • Mtume, “So You Wanna Be a Star (12″ mix)” (James Mtume) – Someone who defined large swaths of music closer to my growing up, James Mtume. First from rippling percussion work on the ’70s Miles Davis records I love, then with his eponymous band doing some of the best disco and post-disco R&B work of anyone, and through sampling, into the hip-hop records I was buying as a young teen, most prominently the Notorious BIG’s “Juicy”‘s use of “Juicy Fruit.” I love everything on that Mtume best of what I picked up used as a kid, but this song was always my favorite from a career that gave me a lot to choose from. That bass/synth/drums breakdown toward the end excites me every time.
  • Stanley Turrentine with Milt Jackson, “Sister Sanctified” (Creed Taylor) – I’m not overstating things when I say we lost some heavyweights this year. Producer/label head Creed Taylor signed John Coltrane to Impulse, introduced bossa nova to America with the Getz/Gilberto collaboration in his time with Verve, and reoriented jazz toward funk without selling out either impulse in his brilliant ’70s run of CTI records. I hit up pally and funk whisperer Andrew Patton to suggest some of those funky CTI selections to choose from, as he knows the catalog better than I do, and he came back with a tight ten-song playlist that included this smoking version of a Weldon Irvine tune, led by soul jazz sax virtuoso Turrentine and vibes player Jackson over a fiery rhythm section of Bob James on piano, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Ron Carter on bass, and Billy Cobham on drums. The perfect example of its genre and still a dance floor filler.
  • Roland Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, “Dancers of Joy” (Charles Brackeen) – Leaning a little more toward the rocking/noisy side of the spectrum but another case of a jazz group pushing against the boundaries of genre at every turn. I’m sorry I never got to see drummer-leader Roland Shannon Jackson, or the stunning sax player we’re highlighting here, Charles Brackeen, but these records hit me like a bomb and brought together so many artists I did go onto see and follow like Melvin Gibbs, Billy Bang, and Vernon Reid.
  • Funkadelic, “Standing on the Verge of Getting it On” (Calvin Simon) – The early, anarchic Funkadelic was the part of George Clinton’s catalog I gravitated toward first, and the unhinged wildness with silky smooth vocals was the principal animating element for me. One of the key vocalists on these wild early records was the great Calvin Simon.
  • Sounds of Liberation, “New Horizons (Back Streets of Heaven)” (Khan Jamal) – Vibraphonist Khan Jamal walked a similar line between fiery free jazz and an unshakable sense of melody, exemplified by this spiritual jazz/R&B classic with the collective Sounds of Liberation.
  • Bloodstone, “Never Let You Go” (Charles McCormack) – On the smoother side of the early black rock movement, these Bloodstone singles are still some of the freshest R&B, led by singer Charles McCormack. The crunch under the sweetness of this song epitomizes what I love so much about this band.
  • Force MDs, “Tender Love” (Jessie Lee Daniels) – This super-soft R&B ballad written by Jam and Lewis with doo-wop style throwback harmonies felt out of place on the Krush Groove soundtrack, but it still holds up as does, for me at least, the first few Force MDs records. I’m delighted whenever I hear them on a jukebox or the radio.
  • Detroit Cobras, “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” (Rachel Nagy) – Rachel Nagy was a force of nature, one of those lead singers you couldn’t take your eyes off; you couldn’t forget from the first moment you saw her. And her band, the Detroit Cobras, with guitarist Mary Ramirez and a rotating cast around the two-woman core, hit a particular sweet spot for me with roughed-up rock and roll versions of classic R&B you weren’t likely to hear anywhere else live. This take on a Hoagy Lands chestnut written by Bert Russell and Wes Farrell immediately became my definitive version.
  • Ohio Players, “Funky Worm” (Greg Webster) – From the Dayton soul and funk axis, the Ohio Players made the biggest and most long-lasting impact. Original drummer Greg Webster left before the band’s biggest chart successes, but this early classic shows off the humorous irreverence of the band fused to tight interplay and the rhythmic template, the shifting, and supple drums, that launched them into the collective musical consciousness.
  • Meat Loaf, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad (Hot Summer Night)” (Meat Loaf) – Bat Out of Hell was – may still be – one of my Mom’s favorite records and I remember driving in her car listening to this cassette a lot when I was young. The Jim Steinman songs and Todd Rundgren production created a dazzling Las Vegas revue of a Springsteen burlesque and my favorite songs off it are the most overheated, the most audacious in their heart-on-my-sleeve gushing and boldness; this one, with the hilarious spoken word intro, is probably first among equals on this record that does exactly what it’s trying to do and provides a perfect showcase for Meat’s inimitable voice at the crossroads of musical theater and ’70s arena rock.
  • Little Willie John, “I’m Shakin'” (Philip Paul) – Cincinnati’s King Records produced some of the definitive statements of R&B and country music on the cusp of the two giving birth to rock and roll, and after, and it doesn’t get much more definitive than this Little Willie John lust anthem that still leaves 90% of records on this subject matter back in the dust. A big reason for that energy and staying power is drummer Philip Park who provides the engine behind so many classics out of the King studios, like Hank Ballard’s “Sexy Ways” and Freddie King’s “Hide Away.” He set the standard for drums, making it almost impossible to stay in your seat.
  • The Lilybandits, “(Oblige Me) Mrs. Wilson” (Keith Smith) – Another drummer who moved the world for me personally and in my localized scene is Keith Smith. The Lilybandits galvanized a growing movement when Columbus had a load of those bands and provided a key conduit connecting the scenes of various towns; the Drive-By Truckers still name-check this band. The great songs of Jason “Jose” Gonzales and Todd May, May’s wrenching lead vocals, and Bob Hite’s history-of-all-music piano all sat on top of one of our finest rhythm sections, with Trent Arnold on bass and Keith Smith on drums. I’m still proud to call Todd and Trent my friends and the great sounding reissue of their perfect first record Shifty’s Tavern (which I couldn’t find for years, only the damn fine second album 33 1/3 until I stumbled upon a used CD in St Louis) hit sadly just in time for Smith’s untimely death. This track is rich with his idiosyncratic but rocking approach with surprising fills and left turns.
  • Roy Hargrove Big Band, “Mambo for Roy” (Montez Coleman) – Continuing the playlist’s drummer streak, St Louis-born drummer Montez Coleman held down the drum chair for Roy Hargrove during some of the trumpeter’s most thrilling work as well as providing exquisite drumming on great records by Rufus Reid, Russell Malone, Bruce Barth, and others. This big band record felt like a revelation to me when I heard it in the late 2000s, and a big part of the reason is Coleman’s intense rhythmic footprint.
  • The Five Satins, “A Night Like This” (Fred Parris) – As lead singer, high tenor, and writer of most of their big hits, Fred Parris made the Five Satins superstars in the late 50s doo-wop scene, and these records still sound so beautiful.
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five featuring Melle Mel, “The Message” (Duke Bootee) – Songwriter Duke Bootee crafted this song that, in Melle Mel, is one of those all-time perfect pairings of vocalist and composer, and created a towering classic and one of the first hip-hop social commentary records, broadening the perceptions of the then-nascent genre.
  • Miles Davis, “Ife” (Badal Roy) – Badal Roy helped bring the tablas into jazz with his work on the Miles Davis sessions that produced On the Corner, Big Fun, and Get Up With It. This track off Big Fun, a personal favorite of mine, shows the melodic drums used as a color and as key syncopation, a foil for Michael Henderson’s bass in particular and the two drummers as well as James Mtume’s percussion.
  • John Cale, “Dying on the Vine” (Bob Neuwirth) – Bob Neuwirth’s Zelig-like career is begging for a full biography, connecting Bob Dylan, the Warhol crowd, later inheritors like Patti Smith and John Cale, co-writing the Janis Joplin classic “Mercedes Benz.” My favorite piece of his recorded work is this collaboration with Cale, which I first heard on a similar solo tour that gave us the beautiful Fragments of a Rainy Season and went back to check out Last Day on Earth. This song landed hooks in me as a teenager, and with every phase of my life, it speaks to me.
  • Bosq Y Candela All Stars, “Balancea” (Hector “Tito” Matos) – The great percussionist Tito Matos isn’t as well recorded as you might suspect, but everything I’ve heard of him is fantastic. This Matos co-write with producer Ben Woods from this supergroup comp is a highlight to set any party off with Matos’ various percussion as the beating heart of a horn-drenched rager.
  • Theotis Taylor, “Something Within Me” (Theotis Taylor) – Georgia-based preacher, pianist, and singer Brother Theotis Taylor started recording in the ’70s, but I wasn’t aware of his work until the beautiful record on Big Legal Mess this stands as the title track of, sensitively produced by Bruce Watson with playing from Jimbo Mathus, Will Sexton, and Liz Brashear among others, it’s a shining example of deep gospel.
  • Syl Johnson, “One Way Ticket to Nowhere” (Syl Johnson) – It’s almost impossible to pick a single song from one of the 20th century’s greatest soul singers, Chicago’s Syl Johnson. As much as I love classics like “Different Strokes” and “Is It Because I’m Black”, I knew I had to choose something from his own Twinight records because the Numero box set exposing me to more of that material took me from being a fan to a superfan, and the Numero revue the Wexner Center brought to the Lincoln with JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound as the backing band is still one of my most treasured live musical experiences.
  • Elza Soares, “Saltei De Banda” (Elza Soares) – I found Brazilian samba legend Elza Soares a little later than Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa (also sadly on this list) but as soon as I heard her funky samba fusion records and her punchy, conversational vocal delivery I understood the BBC calling her one of the two female singers of the millenium. A singer and bandleader for all times, with a plethora of great songs like this party starter.
  • To Live and Shave in LA, “Song of Roland and A Single Thumbscrew Curl” (Tom Smith) – Through my college years and a little after, the noise scene was really popping off in Columbus, and Tom Smith’s wide-ranging collective To Live and Shave in LA were seen as spiritual forefathers by several people I talked to in that scene. Records that still feel as vibrant and exciting to me as they did then and I treasure the one time I was able to see a lineup of them live.
  • Fred Van Hove, “Suite 1.2.3/2 Het Steven om niet vertrapt te worden” (Fred Van Hove) – I believe I first heard about the Belgian pianist and free jazz pioneer Fred Van Hove through the Chicago writer John Corbett’s Extended Play, maybe my musical bible for a number of years, and once I found the work I fell in love with it instantly. A touch and an approach to organizing ideas not quite like any piano player I’ve ever heard and just as fresh as the first time I heard him and he blew my mind.
  • George Crumb, “Variazioni” (George Crumb) – I wanted to include Crumb’s landmark string quartet “Black Angels” which I saw a few years ago at the VIVO festival and it still retained its power to shock and stun as it had in the ’70s, but every streaming version I could find was broken into such small chunks I didn’t think it gave the right picture. So in digging, I fell in love with this recording of Variazioni by the Louisville Symphony and I think it’s a magical, mysterious work, using dynamics to really lead the listener on a journey.
  • The Ventures, “Walk Don’t Run” (Don Wilson) – Another marvel in dynamics and the power of using limited elements to maximum effect, the indelible riff of this standard-bearer for instrumental rock and the swinging, loose rhythm still rocks as hard as anything I can think of, propelled by co-founder Don Wilson’s perfect rhythm guitar.
  • Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm (Live)” (Sam Lay) – Drummer Sam Lay was among a handful of musicians who established what I think of as the rhythmic conception of Chicago blues. I love his Howlin’ Wolf singles and his long relationship with Muddy Waters but I really wanted to draw from the Magic Sam Live record on Delmark which I heartily recommend and applaud the label’s decision to only have a couple of tracks available for streaming but I don’t love either of those two songs – then it hit me, this righteous live read of “Maggie’s Farm” from the soundtrack to Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home. That beat, between a train beat and a shuffle, is iconic and gives this song I love in most of its forms a raw, raucous energy not found in most of the other occurrences.
  • John Patton, “Memphis” (Leroy Williams) – I love soul jazz, particuarly the work of organist John Patton who always had killer bands and let everyone playing with him shine. Drummer Williams also enlivened great records by Junior Cook, Barry Harris, the underrated ’70s Andrew Hill albums, but this session weirdly not released until the ’90s is a brilliant showcase as he locks in behind Patton’s B3, James “Blood” Ulmer’s guitar, and Marvin Cabell’s sublimely greasy tenor.
  • Tom T. Hall, “Mama Bake a Pie, Daddy Kill a Chicken” (Hargus “Pig” Robbins) – Another player whose piano work defines the sound of so much American music I love it’s impossible to imagine the landscape of music without it, Pig Robbins features in popular music to a deserved but surprising degree from great digressions from Bonnie “Prince” Billy in the Alan Licht book (and I probably would have drawn from Sings Greatest Palace Music if it were on this streaming service). His work on Tom T. Hall’s 100 Children album is a high water mark for music serving the song and his delicate background piano work accentuates the heartbreak on this quintessential Vietnam protest song.
  • Susan Graham, “For Poulenc” (Ned Rorem) – I knew Ned Rorem’s commentary and published diaries before I heard any of his prolific output as a composer, but once I redressed that error I knew why he was considered one of the greatest practitioners of the art song in American history. This piece, with a lyric written specifically for Rorem by his friend Frank O’Hara for another friend of his, Francis Poulenc, is interesting in how it sidesteps a lot of obvious French tropes and its bone-deep intimacy, given a magical reading by Susan Graham from what’s still my favorite collection of Rorem songs.
  • Norma Waterson, “Strange Weather” (Norma Waterson) – I’m as big a fan of Norma Waterson’s, of the first family of British folk music, interpretations of traditional music as anyone. One of my favorite musical moments of all time was seeing her as part of Waterson:Carthy which included her husband Martin Carthy and their daughter Eliza at the old Thirsty Ear club. But I have a special love for those cases where she finds a contemporary song she loves as much as those classics and really digs her teeth into it, and this duende-drenched take on Tom Waits’ “Strange Weather” from her duo record with daughter Eliza is a favorite example of her working in that mode.
  • Mark Lanegan, “Methamphetamine Blues” (Mark Lanegan) – Using a little more machine colors to dig into a similar tempo and a variation on the same existential melancholy as the last couple of tunes, this was one of my two or three favorite songs off my favorite Lanegan solo album, Bubblegum.
  • Betty Davis, “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” (Betty Davis) – Betty Davis’ off-kilter, hard as nails funk records are always good for revving up a party and for marveling that the major label system let such a strong, individual voice break through even if it didn’t know what to do with her.
  • The Sadies featuring Kelly Hogan, “1,000,002 Songs” (Dallas Good) – The Sadies were one of the greatest live bands I ever saw, in venues from New York’s Mercury Lounge to Cleveland’s Beachland to Columbus’s Rumba they never phoned a damn note in. Singer-guitarist Dallas good shines on this charming, bitter duet with the great Kelly Hogan on a record that set a benchmark for live  rock albums, In Concert.
  • Missing Monuments, “Another Girl” (King Louie Bankston) – King Louie got most of his acclaim in supporting roles – the band Bad Times with Jay Reatard and Eric Oblivian, drumming in the rockingest version of Nola institution the Royal Pendletons, co-writing most of the Exploding Hearts’ classic Guitar Romantic, and sitting in with countless people (I fondly remember a terrific set by Greg Cartwright in the Cooper-Young Gazebo with Louie on drums for most of it). And any of us in or around the garage punk scene have a great Louie story: he showed up for other bands, he showed up for the party, he always had a kind word for you. I always loved the projects where he came out front and center, especially the Missing Monuments of the last decade. This single on Hozac, with  their core lineup of Aaron Hall from EyeHateGod and Julien Fried from Detonations, is a particular favorite of mine (though my favorite of their records, Painted White, is not on this streaming service – go find that if you don’t already know it), his pop sensibility coming to the fore with enough punk roughness to make it move.
  • Bobby Rydell, “The Joker” (Bobby Rydell) – I have an enormous soft spot for overly dramatic early ’60s pop – another holdover from my Grandmother who probably would have said “Volare” was her favorite Rydell but I definitely heard this song as a kid around her house – and no one did it better than Bobby Rydell.
  • The Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (Joe Messina) – Anne’s favorite Motown song and definitely in my top five. I remember the year it felt like everyone I knew saw Standing in the Shadows of Motown in the theater and came back talking about the Funk Brothers, with good reason. Obviously, the James Jamerson bass line is the star of this production – neck and neck with David Ruffin’s scorching vocal – but it’s a perfect case study in how important every single element is, if you took away Messina’s tight rhythm guitar, everything would fall apart, and he did that on more songs than I even know about.
  • Timmy Thomas, “I’ve Got to See You Tonight” (Timmy Thomas) – One of the templates for the southern soul subgenre, going from playing keys with Donald Byrd and Cannonball Adderly to writing and producing ’90s R&B classics for LaFace and writing and singing one classic after another over the years. This is a prime example of his flexible, dipping and surging voice using the tension with the straight-time drum machine in a really interesting way.
  • Traci Braxton, “Last Call”  (Traci Braxton) – I grew up knowing Traci Braxton as a backing vocalist on her singer Toni’s record, singles I loved, but it didn’t know her own work until I heard this and it blew me away. The way her voice plays with that rhythm, working toward a perfectly calibrated effect, is like watching a beautiful magic trick with heartbreak at its center. “So baby, how we gonna do this? Why you got me so elusive?”
  • Dennis Gonzalez and New Dallas Sextet, “Hymn for Mbizo” (Dennis Gonzalez) – Trumpeter-composer Gonzalez coaxed some giants out of the woodwork for this 1987 album, including saxophonist Charles Brackeen. With an all time rhythm section of Malachi Favors and Alvin Fielder, this is one of the strongest counterarguments to the received wisdom that the young lions, the burgeoning downtown scene, and the last gasps of fusion were the entirety of jazz in the ’80s. And beyond that counternarrative, it’s stil stirring, remarkable music.
  • Ron Miles, “Darken My Door” (Ron Miles) – I first knew trumpeter Ron Miles through his work with the Bill Frisell Quartet when I was in High School and every record he every put out – as a leader or a sideman – was something to treasure, and I was extremely lucky to see him several times over the years, including a jaw-dropping set at the Wexner Center with Still Dreaming alongside Joshua Redman, Scott Colley, and Brian Blade; and a dazzling trio Bangs with Jason Moran and Mary Halvorson at Big Ears (and was sorry to miss the impromptu tribute set at Big Ears this year though I was glad it was because every seat in that theater was filled). This 2016 record, I Am A Man is a personal favorite of his later work, with a quintet of players he knew extremely well – Frisell, Moran, Blade, and Thomas Morgan – sinking into these rich, heartbreaking compositions.
  • Mira Calix, “Le Jardin De Barbican” (Mira Calix) – In my early 20s I went deep into the rabbit hole of electronic music, especially almost anything the Warp label released. Early in that rabid fandom I saw Mira Calix open for Plaid at the Wex and her set was so breathtaking I barely remember Plaid playing; I already had the one record of hers that was out at the time but I kept watching for anything she did going forward. She was also one of the early examples I was aware of, of artists working in multiple media, picking up the torch of a lot of examples I grew up reading about but with a contemporary slant. This piece – from the 2004 record 3 Commissions – was commissioned for the reopening of the gallery space in the Barbican and when I finally visited London some 14 years later – thank you to Anne for that final push – walking up to the Barbican stirred up some nascent memories of this beautiful piece, and I was down the rabbit hole again.
  • Philip Jeck, “Pilot/Dark Blue Night” (Philip Jeck) – Another composer who mainly worked with electronics and turntables, and who did much of his work with dance pieces, installations, galleries, those Philip Jeck records in my late teens and early twenties opened up whole possibilities of music for me, and he kept making dark, intriguing, sui generis records the rest of his life.
  • Radu Lupu, “Brahms: Op. 119 – Intermezzo In B Minor” (Radu Lupu) – Classical music was a later in life thing for me, I spent too much of my life being intimidated by it, feeling like I had to know something. Once I started to get past that, one of the first piano players I gravitated toward was Radu Lupu. This Brahms recording has – for me – some of the same mystery as the Calix and the Jeck I placed it after, though I’ll never know enough to say if it was an influence.
  • Kenny Garrett, “Night and Day” (Charnett Moffett) – Growing up, Kenny Garrett was one of my favorite alto players, discovering him in the ’90s and working backwards – these late ’80s record always seemed to be in various used record stores – and this Triology blew me away. I want to saw I got it at the same time as Ornette Coleman’s At The Golden Circle Vol. 1, not realizing the bassist on most of the Garrett, including this beautiful take on one of my favorite Cole Porter songs, was the son of Charles Moffett who played drums on the Coleman. I never heard a bad Charnett Moffett bass line – ever – but the melodic groove he kicks up on this, and the hookup with Garret’s alto and Brian Blade’s drums is so gorgeously heavy, it still blows me away.
  • Alarm Will Sound, “Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum” (Harrison Birtwistle) – I got into 20th century classical/new music far before the canonical greats; the use of dissonance and rhythms that sounded like life when I walked outside were easier for me to grasp at first. Almost no group did more to turn me onto some of my favorite composers than Alarm Will Sound and their take on this 1977 piece by the great Harrison Birtwistle is a masterclass in repetition and transformation.
  • Klaus Schulze, “Minority Report” (Klaus Schulze) – The early German electronic music was always intoxicating and perplexing – it evokes an emotional response, a sense of dread and also hope – that I don’t get out of the new age music it shares a lot of tonal commonality with, and high on that list for me was always Klaus Schulze. Part of the appeal was the science fiction references he played with; I found his work while reading a lot of that stuff, like the Philip K. Dick story this title references but the music still holds up in a way most of the work that signifies those childhood heroes of mine does not.
  • Kid and Khan and Julee Cruise, “Say Good Bye (Losoul Mix)” (Julee Cruise) – Kid Congo Powers is a constant inspiration for the way he keeps moving from project to project, guided by working with people he loves and his enthusiasms. I love these electronic collaborations with Khan but this has a special place in my heart because the one time I got to see the great Julee Cruise live was at a Kid Congo release show at Tonic where he played taffy-like slide guitar pieces behind her (and another accompanist with a laptop); not only did I get to hear a voice I’d loved since getting turned onto David Lynch as a kid but I got to understand something about camaraderie just a little bit better.
  • NG la Banda, “La Bruja” (José Luis “El Tosco” Cortés) – Continuing the uphill slide into dance music, flutist Cortés led this Cuban group after leaving international sensations Irakere and invented an entire genre, timba music.
  • Earth Wind and Fire, “Africano” (Andrew Woolfolk) – I love the EWF hits (I’ve said repeatedly that jukebox staple single disc Greatest Hits is probably single greatest Greatest Hits comp of the 1970s, among stiff competition) but I love an excuse to go into the albums and find some deeper cuts. This groove monster from That’s The Way of the World is a brilliant showcase for sax player Andrew Woolfolk, crucial on almost all of their records from the classic period but particular featured here, check that solo.
  • The Judds, “Mama He’s Crazy” (Naomi Judd) – Nobody cast a longer shadow over country music when I was a kid than the mother and daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna, The Judds. This Kenny O’Dell-penned molasses-slow ballad seemed like it was on the radio constantly as a child (it came out when I was 4, on their first record) and set a standard for one massive hit after another that I love and still remembered every lyric to when I went looking for a song for this playlist.
  • The Saints, “Swing For The Crime” (Chris Bailey) – The Saints are among the million bands my friend Blue turned me onto over the years. I already had and liked Stranded but the more expansive Eternally Yours and especially the horn-soaked Prehistoric Sounds this swinging rager leads off, blew my mind. I could probably count the number of party mixes that didn’t include this or the same album’s “Every Day’s a Holiday” and Bailey’s sneering punk lounge lizard voice retained its power through my seeing him front a later version of The Saints in the early 2000s.
  • Mickey Gilley, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” (Mickey Gilley) – Gilley didn’t cast quite as large a shadow on music as his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis but he brought a kind of citified sophistication in his records, his stage show, and the club that bears his name kicking off the Urban Cowboy movement, and made a slew of phenomenal neo-honky tonk records that still sound good when the lights are coming up and the bartender’s ready for you to be gone.
  • 2Pac featuring the Outlawz and Jewell, “Thug Passion” (Jewell) – Jewell was one of the unsung weapons of Death Row Records and a key voice on a much of the chart-topping rap of my youth. She was never quite used to her fullest extent on the label but hooks like this, over a smooth Johnny J beat built around a Zapp sample, are indelible.
  • D Generation, “No Lunch” (Howie Pyro) – It took me a minue for D Generation, the production didn’t sit right when I first heard these records; when I finally came back I realized just how much I missed. One of the great fun-focused rock bands of the late ’90s/early ’00s, with every element clicking. Howie Pyro’s thick punk bass lines and co-writing, as well as his aesthetic inspiration, are key to this potent stew, and I knew him more as a DJ but anything he touched is worth hearing.
  • The Locust, “Wet Dream War Machine” (Gabe Serbian) – The first time I saw The Locust, I was in love – the conciseness and deep-drilled intensity of early Napalm Death with the punchiness of classic hardcore and an extra serving of noise, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them the half a dozen times I was lucky to see them. Gabe Serbian’s drums were key to that effect and he was always exciting to watch.
  • Bernard Wright, “Master Rocker” (Bernard Wright) – This opening salvo off Wright’s debut record ‘Nard still holds up with a crisp, flexible groove highlighting Wright’s subtle and decisive keyboards (that solo toward the end, good lord) and half-whispered vocals.
  • Ronnie Hawkins, “One More Night” (Ronnie Hawkins) – I grew up knowing Ronnie Hawkins as the big Canadian star who gave The Band their start as the Hawks, but years later I found a post-Band breaking off records at a record fair and realized there was more to dig into. This lovely read on a Bob Dylan ballad is a damn fine example of his country rock tendencies.
  • Grachan Moncur III, “When” (Grachan Moncur III) – Trombonist Grachan Moncur III helped define hard bop and push at its edges with two immaculate Blue Note records, and great work on records by label mates like Larry Young, Jackie McLean, and Wayne Shorter, but my favorite period, where he started to embrace noise and messiness, started to fully flower with this BYG Actuel record New Africa, that finds his horn in concert with Roscoe Mitchell (and, on this track, Archie Shepp) over a sizzling rhythm section of Dave Burrell, Alan Silva, and Andrew Cyrille.
  • The McCrary Sisters, “Hum and Moan (Live)” (Deborah McCrary) – The McCrary sisters are one of the finest examples of second generation gospel royalty, descended from a founding member of the Fairfield Four, and I was first turned onto them through their appearances on secular records like Margo Price but I go back to this live record regularly. Just beautiful.
  • George Cables, “Quiet Fire” (John Heard) – Bassist John Heard added magic to records by Cal Tjader, Count Basie, BB King, but my favorite work was his hookup with the great New York pianist George Cables and this live 1980 date with Sherman Ferguson and Eddie Henderson is a beautifully recorded example of that telepathy the two of them had.
  • Gran Combo, “El Problema Esta En El Coco” (Willie Sotelo) – Every iteration of Gran Combo is worth hearing but for me, Willie Sotelo’s introduction on piano re-energized them in the mid ’00s and this from, I think, the first record featuring him, crackles with warmth and energy.
  • Phreek, “Weekend (12″ Version)” (Patrick Adams) – Producer Patrick Adams provided a bridge between classic hard New York disco like Inner Life and early-mid period hip-hop like Salt-N-Pepa. This production from studio creation Phreek has always been one of my favorites and exemplifies what I love about this slice of disco before it got all the edges scrubbed off.
  • Depeche Mode, “I Feel You” (Andy Fletcher) – Depeche Mode is a band I love that shares traits with huge swaths of music I actively dislike. Songs of Faith and Devotion was the first of their records I bought myself, when I was 13, and I still remember how the ominous, sexy stomp of this opening track made me feel. And I always have a lot of love for Andy Fletcher’s ambiguous role in this period of the band – additional keyboards? – but he’s clearly adding something to that special vibration.
  • Goblin, “Suspiria” (Massimo Morante) – As a movie nerd, soundtrack music was my gateway to a lot of genres and artists I wouldn’t have stumbled on myself, and as a kid who had a subscription to Fangoria at 12 I clearly loved Dario Argento movies which meant being blown away by those Goblin soundtracks. I think a Goblin best of was the second “score music but not a specific movie’s soundtrack” release I ever bought, after a two disc Ennio Morricone. Morante’s guitar and writing are key to the constructions of all of these, and his empathy and listening helps set them apart from other proggy bands of the era.
  • Miles Davis, “Sivad” (Michael Henderson) – I mentioned my love for Miles Davis’ ’70s work above and Live-Evil might be the record I reach for the most. This rocking workout from Washington’s Cellar Door club (heavily edited I suspect) is an amazing showcase for Michael Henderson’s liquid bass, anchoring a rhythm section with Keith Jarrett on electric piano, Jack Dejohnette on drums, and Airto Moreira on percussion.
  • Charles Mingus, “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers” (Sy Johnson) – Growing up as kind of a jazz head, it seems shameful I only know a handful of jazz arrangers without having to break out books or liner notes: Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, Overton Hall.. and Sy Johnson. The sad news of his death gave me a reason to break out Johnson’s gorgeous arrangements for one of the great jazz composers, Charles Mingus, on Let My Children Hear Music and the live At Philharmonic Hall, and the twists and turns of this piece, the sense of dynamics and space, are as riveting as ever.
  • The Delfonics, “La La Means I Love You” (William “Poogie” Hart) – A different kind of lushness,  courtesy of Thom Bell mentioned above, evnelopes this slow dance classic for the ages, cowritten by Bell and the Delfonics’ lead singer William Hart. That falsetto marks it as timeless and exactly of its time, the moment where he moans “The things that I’m saying are true, and the way I explained it to you,” before the other voices rejoin him, shatters me every time.
  • The Mar-Keys, “After the Affair” (Sidney Kirk) – Memphis’s Sidney Kirk is best known for his long association on keys with Isaac Hayes but I have a special love this Mar-Keys record with that snaking, vibrating keyboard solo.
  • Ramsey Lewis, “The ‘In’ Crowd” (Ramsey Lewis) – There aren’t really words for a lot of people on this list but that’s especially true for Ramsey Lewis who brought jazz to millions of people who’d have no interest otherwise – my friend Darryl said a Ramsey Lewis 45 was the first record he ever bought as a child – and continued playing with vigor and charm until the end of his life. This spirited, catchy take on the Billy Page song, with Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums, still sounds like a party, bottled up at prime excitement.
  • The Impressions, “It’s All Right” (Sam Gooden) – Sam Gooden was one of the original Impressions, before the addition of Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler who both went onto significantly more fame. While Gooden didn’t do a lot of leads in the classic Impressions’s golden years he and Curtis Mayfield toss lines back and forth on this stone classic of laid-back soul.
  • Teenage Head, “Let’s Shake” (Gord Lewis) – The first two records by Ontario band Teenage Head are about as pure and perfect an example of classic punk as I can imagine, fast, snotty, full of youthful energy and angst, and still catchy and swinging. This single off Frantic City might be what I’d give the aliens if they landed and asked “What’s punk rock sound like?”
  • Buddy Holly, “That’ll Be The Day” (Jerry Allison) – And shifting from that early-second generation punk to the late first generation of rock and roll, as Buddy Holly and the Crickets added the Texas shuffle to the burgeoning rock of The Clovers, Louis Jordan, and Ike Turner to create a rhythm that’s still reverberating. Drummer Jerry Allison co-wrote several of the big hits, including this one, and helped make that rhythm sing, and kept the Crickets going after Holly’s death including success backing the Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings.
  • The Pogues, “Thousands are Sailing” (Darryl Hunt) – One of my favorite bands since Tun Kai Poh loaned me the Best Of when I was 16, The Pogues are song-oriented but always a dance band, and that relies on a great bass player, especially live as I confirmed when Anne and I finally got to see them in 2008. After the first couple of records steered by the great Cait O’Riordan, they got the perfect replacement with Darryl Hunt who stayed with them for the rest of the run. His melodic but propulsive playing on anthems like this – hands down, probably my favorite song about New York – is always the biggest thing getting my to lift my glass and sing along.
  • Olivia Newton-John, “Soul Kiss” (Olivia Newton-John) – There are few singers my Mom loves like Olivia Newton-John, Grease is probably her favorite movie, but my favorite work of hers is the later, lower-to-the-ground R&B inflected material like this.
  • Four Tops, “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (Lamont Dozier) – It’s almost impossible to pick just one Holland-Dozier-Holland song, I could have almost filled a playlist this long with my favorite songs by the writing team. The drama in this, the perfect crafting for the vocals of Levi Stubbs and his Tops companions, I don’t think another writing team could have come close to.
  • Idris Muhammad, “Hard to Face the Music” (Ronnie Cuber) – This is another of those funky CTI jazz records I mentioned earlier and another I found through Andrew Patton. Ronnie Cuber owned every style of music he graced with his baritone saxophone and while most of my favorite examples of him as a leader weren’t found on the streaming service, he tears up this excellent version of an Ashford and Simpson R&B classic on this session led by drummer Idris Muhammad.
  • Julius Hemphill and Abdul Wadud, “Pensive” (Abdul Wadud) – Cleveland jazz cellist Abdul Wadud made great records as a leader and with other players like Frank Lowe and Arthur Blythe, but made arguably the biggest mark through his affiliation with composer and reeds player Julius Hemphill. I bow to no one in my estimation for Dogon AD, one of the finest jazz (or anything else) records ever made, but my personal favorite work of the two of them is this unvarnished, vulnerable duets record Live in New York.
  • Slobberbone, “Meltdown” (Jess Barr) – [Full disclosure, I accidentally left this off the first posting, there won’t be any more additions to the playlist] Slobberbone were one of my favorite bands, who always seemed to deliver even when the other bands on the bill were having a rough night. Beyond Brent Best writing some of the finest, most sharply observed songs of anyone, Jess Barr’s guitar (in your face when it needed to be but subtle here) was a key component of that magic.
  • Peggy Lee, “I Wanna Be Around” (Bill Pitman) – Bill Pitman was such a legendary LA session guitarist Phil Spector named a record after him, but it’s frustratingly hard to find which of the Wrecking Crew sessions he’s actually on instead of the handful of other guitarists in the rotation. I hope I’ve got this right, the subtle comping on this song from a record he’s listed as appearing on sure sounds fantastic.
  • Monette Sudler, “All Blues” (Monette Sudler) – Another influential guitarist from the always rich Philadelphia scene, Sudler played with a who’s who, mostly live, and cut a handful of classic records in the ’70s for SteepleChase (not on this streaming service) and some excellent revival records in the ’00s. This standard has never sounded better; her solo manages to surprise while enhancing but not throwing out anything essential about the tune.
  • Windbreakers, “All That Stuff” (Bobby Sutliff) – The ’80s jangling underground has been getting more of a fair shake lately, especially with the 2020 compilation Strum and Thrum which also included my friends in Great Plains, one of whom Mark Wyatt, introduced me to Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff, and their former (by that time) band the Windbreakers. Bobby relocated to Delaware Ohio and I think I saw him play only once though I met him a couple of times, and these records (and the later solo work) still sound as good as ever.
  • Dirtball, “3 Am” (Wes Freed) – Another artist who made a profound impact on me but I only met a couple of times and probably knew less well than 100 of my friends. Wes Freed first made the impression on me with his art defining the universe of the Drive By Truckers, and he booked, did shows with, created original art for, many of my friends’ bands over the years while also running on a parallel track with his and his wife Jyl’s own great dark-Americana band Dirtball.
  • Classie Ballou, “Classie’s Whip” (Classie Ballou) – One of the great early rock and roll instrumentals, low, and mean, and sexy, with an infectious guitar hook that’s almost impossible to shake. One of my most treasured memories from Ponderosa Stomp – in a festival specifically built for those kinds of memories – was getting to see Ballou, sitting down and in his ’70s, playing this with the same uncanny, deep power.
  • Loretta Lynn, “Rated ‘X'” (Loretta Lynn) – One of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, inarguably, full stop, and an artist who did more to modernize country music than literally anyone else, without every sacrificing what made her fans fall in love with her. I regret that I was in the Philippines for work and missed Loretta Lynn’s live appearance at Nelsonville Music Festival and never worked hard enough to see her elsewhere.
  • Jerry Lee Lewis, “Your Cheating Heart” (Jerry Lee Lewis) – A classic example of separating the art from the artist; I’m not sure if I’d have patience of Jerry Lee Lewis if he appeared today, I’m not sure the music could have penetrated through what I know about the biography. But he helped define rock and roll, gave it a persona of unhinged wildness, and then put out some of the most heartbreaking hard country records and in between gave us this, one of the great live records of all time, Live from the Star Club.
  • Mable John, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” (Mable John) – Another slow creeping ballad delivered as though by a hammer. Blues goddess Mable John didn’t spend much time on Stax but this reading on a classic David Porter-Isaac Hayes song is as good as it gets, a perfect marriage of singer and song, of delivery and material. Her other records are damn good also, I’ve never heard a bad one – but this makes time stop.
  • Pharaoh Sanders, “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt” (Pharaoh Sanders) – Another legend who came out of John Coltrane’s orbit with a questing spirit and helped redefine how we think about the tenor saxophone. Any spiritual jazz and almost any free jazz you hear owes an unpayable debt to Sanders, and his handful of Impulse records are just bottled magic.
  • Golden Palominos, “Boy (Go)” (Anton Fier) – I was lucky to see Anton Fier – one of the finest exports from Cleveland and that’s a stacked list – a couple of times, and we had a few friends in common. He’s someone else it’s impossible to choose one track that sums up a career that careened from the Lounge Lizards to the Feelies to Herbie Hancock, but the first best of I got of the Golden Palominos had this perfect, cracked pop song with vocals by Michael Stipe, and written by Fier and Stipe with guitarist Jody Harris who I knew best as a member of the Contortions, and it still makes me want to pump my fist and dance around the room.
  • Coolio, “Fantastic Voyage” (Coolio) – It’s difficult to remember now but I grew up when it still common to hear people in the school hallways say they liked ‘everything but rap.’ Coolio was one of the few exceptions for those people of my acquaintance in High School. This was my first exposure to one of my favorite Dayton funk bands, Lakeside, through the big sample on the chorus, so it opened up that world to me but I also still love it as its own piece of work.
  • Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding, “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” (Robert Gordon) – By bringing contemporary New York attitude and a punk-approriate snarl, and one of the great voices, to classic early rock and roll, Robert Gordon helped make classics like this ’55 Elvis single feel fresh and alive to an entire generation. These live records with he and Chris Spedding – I kick myself for not only getting to see him once – are my favorite artifacts of that powerful combination.
  • Ego Summit, “Novacaine” (Tommy Jay) – Tommy Jay was one of the guiding lights for every bit of underground music I’ve grown up loving here in Columbus, using his barn in Harrisburg just outside of town to record bands, playing drums most notably with Mike Rep and the Quotas, and his own idiosyncratic, moving songwriting. Growing up, the only often available evidence of that was this Columbus supergroup Ego Summit – Jim Shepard, Ron House, Don Howland, Mike Rep, and Tommy Jay – and this mysterious Jay original was one of my immediate favorites on a record stacked with other songwriters whose work I already knew and loved.
  • Dead Kennedys, “This Could Be Anywhere” (DH Peligro) – As much as I love the first two records, the Dead Kennedys material that really clicked for me came with DH Peligro’s appointment to the drum chair, Frankenchrist might be my favorite of their records and his pummeling but swinging assault driving this song is a big part of why.
  • Redman featuring Hurricane G, “We Run NY” (Hurricane G) – Puerto Rican New Yorker rapper Hurricane G didn’t get nearly the credit she was due – I loved this duet with Redman immediately when I heard his classic album Dare Iz a Darkside but didn’t even know she had a solo record a few years later – but she made an impression all around.
  • Dr Feelgood, “All Through the City” (Wilko Johnson) – A similar swaggering look at a different city almost 20 years earlier, that first Dr Feelgood record didn’t just set a template for pub rock, it created a path for all the rough around the edges rock and roll my friends and I grew up loving, in large part due to those huge riffs by writer and founding guitarist Wilko Johnson.
  • Gal Costa, “Divinio Mavarvilhoso” (Gal Costa) – One of my favorite voices. I’m not sure how many times I’ve said that writing this, but it’s been true every single time. One of my favorite memories is taking Anne to the Blue Note in New York to see Costa with Romero Lubambo on guitar and those songs worked just as well for just voice and guitar as they do with the lush arrangements of her classic ’60s and ’70s records (you can’t go wrong with any of them); one of the very few times that tourist trap of a venue felt like church (in the best way).
  • Roland Johnson, “Can’t Get Enough” (Roland Johnson) – I came to Roland Johnson just this year when pal Roy Kasten booked him for dear friend John Wendland’s bachelor party, and when John said “He has a lot of great originals,” coupled with the few he did in that set, I knew I had to dig into the records and, as usual, John didn’t steer me wrong. A killer soul singer still making fantastic records into the last decade.
  • Fleetwood Mac, “Say You Love Me” (Christine McVie) – Fleetwood Mac is a band I almost never put on just because I heard them so often as a kid, but there’s a reason they were still ubiquitous on the radio into the ’80s and ’90s, it’s unassailable. And my favorite songs of theirs are all Christine McVie compositions, the piano bounce and the gleaming chorus on this never fail to make me smile.
  • Roddy Jackson, “Moose on the Loose” (Roddy Jackson) – Another piano-driven rocker from Roddy Jackson, a rare rockabilly artist on one of the labels that charted the changing course of R&B starting in the ’50s, and his best work, including this, has the same power and vibrancy of all the Specialy Records I knew better. I’d also like to take this opportunity to remember label head Art Rupe who also passed away this year.
  • The Clean, “Anything Could Happen” (Hamish Kilgour) – My love of the Clean is mostly owed to Mark Wyatt and Shirley Tobias – and I should mention my friend Kellie Morgan who worked with Ace of Cups to bring them here for a (no one’s fault but the weather) insanely packed show a number of years ago. This early song has a bounce that makes the best use of Hamish Kilgour’s drumming.
  • Fatal Hussein and Tame One, “Ghetto Star” (Tame One) – I got into Tame One in the early ’00s when I would buy just about anything by Eastern Conference Records (and never really got steered wrong) but this crackling collaboration with his fellow New Jersey MC Fatal didn’t hit my radar until, well, my pal Andrew Patton told me he’d passed away.
  • 3rd Bass, “The Gas Face” (Don Newkirk) – Don Newkirk made a huge impact, mostly appearing in the background, collaborating with Prince Paul on film scores, beats, and other collaborative records. He makes a mic appearance as the host on this classic; I still occasionally use the phrase “That gets the gas face.”
  • The Stranglers, “Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)” (Jet Black) – That first lineup of The Stranglers, especially the first three records, still hold up as prime examples of the post-punk and first wave punk coincided at precisely the same time in London – the cooler, meancing drumming of Jet Black and the swirling keyboards of Dave Greenfield fly in the face of any loud-and-fast purist.
  • The Specials, “Ghost Town” (Terry Hall) – The Specials cut this loose, swinging, sensual poison pen letter of a song (written by keyboardist Jerry Dammers) in tribute to the struggling English towns they toured through and, behind Terry Hall’s low-key and venomous vocal, it’s still one of the finest protest songs of the ’80s.
  • Combustible Edison, “Bluebird (Buddy Mikro Mix by Sait Etienne)” (Brother Cleve) – Brother Cleve made an impression on me visiting Boston during my college years, especially when I hit 21, as someone who was helping revive a bygone cocktail culture with the same sense of irreverence and wit he brought to bands like the Del Fuegos and especially Combustible Edison, and everyone of those cocktail bars he had a hand in, up through Manhattan’s Lullaby, that I’ve visited had that same easy charm coupled with a deep dedication to the craft of the drink. He produced and wrote – at least I hope those credits are true – this song from the period when he was the keyboard player and it’s a reminder that you can move people in multiple ways throughout your life.
  • Ichirou Mizuki, “Mazinger Z [Infinity Version, Opening Edit]” (Ichiro Mizuki) – As a child I grew up loving the anime that was translated for these shores, my favorite not-seen-very-often was Tranzor Z, a translation of Mazinger Z, which kick started a lifelong love of artist Go Nagai and, years later, when I got into more subtitled and sophisticated anime – and friends of mine did a parody subtitle of the crossover Mazinger Z Vs. Devilman, I also started getting into soundtracks. And the voice of the opening credits of Mazinger Z, heard here, Ichirou Mizuki, did around 1,200 of these openings, setting the standard for the big, brassy vocalist that let you know something exciting was about to happen – and he still sounds like that.
  • Ash Ra Tempel, “Daydream” (Manuel Göttsching) -Göttsching and his Ash Ra Tempel band mates – sometimes including Klaus Schulze who shows up elsewhere on this list – helped birth a scene of gentle but deceptively barbed psychedelia that created scenes reverberating through bands I found and loved in my 20s and beyond, like Acid Mothers Temple, Harsh Jar Tempo, and most of the Terrastock scene.
  • Angelo Badalamenti, “Akron Meets the Blues” (Angelo Badalamenti) – As soon as I saw Twin Peaks – and I suspect it was within that same year I (too young) saw Blue Velvet on video – the music spoke to me just as strongly as the images (and the narrative took a few years before I learned to love its disjunctions and dream logic as much as those elements) and went crazy for Badalamenti when I started buying soundtracks. This chunk of the Blue Velvet soundtrack showcases his mastery of blues idioms and his signature, woozy string writing.
  • Peter Cooper, “Much Better Now” (Peter Cooper) – Peter Cooper’s long been one of my inspirations as someone writing about music and especially writing about the scene he lives in. The impact Cooper made on the artists he wrote about – sometimes pissing them off but also lots of declarations of love – through his time at the Tennessean and transitioning to the Country Music Hall of Fame – is a guiding light for me. And his music, which I knew about but it took me too long to actually get around to, is written and played with that same care, balancing his own damn fine songs, like this one, with songs by the greatest songwriters that leave him something to say about them.
  • Jesse Winchester, “Sham-a-Lam-Dong-Ding” (Bill VornDick) – Another limitation of streaming, I really wanted to pay tribute to the legendary bluegrass producer Bill VornDick with his crystalline work on my favorite record from one of my all-time favorite Columbus bands, One Riot One Ranger, Side Tracks. And if you don’t already have it, seek it out: that version of Great Plains’ “Long and Slow Decline” is worth the price of admission alone and there are at least ten performances that good on it. But when that wasn’t available, I immediately wanted to use this final, gorgeous Jesse Winchester record, Love Filling Station. This record focuses on every nuance of Winchester’s voice provides the right, warm accompaniment, especially on this song, both a swan song and a benediction about what keeps all of us who love music coming back again and again.
  • Low, “When I Go Deaf” (Mimi Parker) – I saw Low half a dozen times, probably, over the years, and they were never less than excellent. But the tour at the Wexner Center’s performance space for this record The Great Destroyer just broke me. On this song, which I think I called “like an inside out George and Tammy duet,” with its sweet, low harmonies that explode into a whirling, fiery mass of guitar I just started sobbing. I’m still kicking myself for not seeing Low at Big Ears because I thought there’d be time. But I think about that beautiful moment every time I’m debating going out to a show, about how fleeting all of this is. And, as usual, I end with a prayer. Thank any of you who read through this. I love you.
Best Of Playlist record reviews

Playlist – 2022 Spaces

In contrast to the last playlist, these are compositions and performances I didn’t think fit as neatly into the categorization of songs. Usually – but not always – instrumental, usually – but not always – a little longer, a little more sprawling.

  • Medicine Singers featuring Jaimie Branch, “Sanctuary” – I was a big fan of Yonatan Gat’s band Monotonix live, but they never quite gelled for me on record, but I’ve been extremely excited to see the various paths, curiosities, and enthusiasms he’s followed since breaking out on his own. My favorite is his collaboration with the Native American group Eastern Medicine singers on this stunning self-titled album. The record is full of guests, but every guest seems well-chosen, none more so than Jaimie Branch here, who adds a questing, majestic trumpet that feels like coming home to a place that doesn’t look quite the same.
  • Terri Lyne Carrington featuring Ambrose Akinmusire, “Rounds” – Drummer-composer-bandleader Terri Lyne Carrington’s New Standards project is one of the most important pieces of work enhancing jazz in years, with 100 great new compositions by women. The accompanying record, New Standards Vol. 1 finds Carrington assembling a crack rhythm section of herself, Kris Davis on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, Matthew Stevens on guitar, and a series of guests. This album-closing, spiky house fire written by one of my favorite pianists (and the artist we went to see the first time Anne and I went to the Village Vanguard together), Marilyn Crispell, features a jaw-dropping, dangling off the edge of the world trumpet solo from Ambrose Akinmusire.
  • Mary Halvorson, “Amaryllis” – Mary Halvorson made two of her strongest statements yet in 2022, with the mirrored records Amaryllis and Belladonna. I greatly admired the work with the Mivos Quartet on the latter – and it’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to seeing at Big Ears – but I couldn’t get several of the pieces with her crushing new sextet of Patricia Brennan on vibes, Nick Dunston on bass, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Jacob Garchik on trombone, and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet out of my head, especially this title track on the other album. It’s a call to arms of raging beauty and a successful attempt to transcribe the beauty of the world, that moment where Halvorson’s comping mutates right behind O’Farrill’s blistering solo then takes off in another direction knocks me out.’
  • Loraine James, “Building Something Beautiful For Me (Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc)” – The posthumous renaissance of Julius Eastman continues to be a source of joy. This year brought a couple of artifacts of his own compositions and a breathtaking record of homages and refiguring from London-based composer/producer Loraine James. This title track uses the first piece of Eastman’s work I loved, the vocal intro and massed cellos of The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, and stretches the tones, playing with the colors so new light shines right through.
  • Brian Harnetty, “Let There Be a Moving Mosaic of This Rich Material” – Brian Harnetty is one of Columbus’s finest composers in a field where the bar is high. Over the last several years, his work with archives, especially with the past of Kentucky and Ohio, has provided a rich field he’s dug deep and made the best use of. His new record, Words and Silences, is a masterful look at the monk and writer Thomas Merton, using Merton’s own words and Harnetty’s settings to craft a mosaic look at the great man’s life. It’s a remarkable paean to stillness, attention, to getting off the merry-go-round of modern life and stopping to hear ourselves. Like all of Harnetty’s work, the insistence on meeting the materials where they are doesn’t negate the artist’s intention or vision, it opens it wide.
  • Bill Frisell, “Waltz for Hal Willner” – As I said in an earlier Parting Gifts playlist, Hal Willner’s tribute records were world-shattering to me, bringing together Leonard Cohen, Diamanda Galas, Harry Partch instruments in the service of Charles Mingus compositions, everything on Night Music… it all stunned me. And I’m so glad I got to see Willner once doing a piece with recordings accompanied by a small band, including Bill Frisell, where the affection between the two was radiating throughout the Stone. I love everything on Frisell’s new record, Four, pairing him with pianist Gerald Clayton, drummer Johnathan Blake, and Greg Tardy on clarinet and saxophone, but I kept coming back to this beautiful, elegiac waltz.
  • Kalia Vandever, “Passing Through” – Composer and trombonist Kalia Vandever assembled a nuanced, powerful sextet for an album of some of the best jazz compositions anyone’s writing now, Regrowth. Her striking trombone voice is front and center with gripping accompaniment from Immanuel Wilkins on alto, Lee Meadvin on guitar, Paul Cornish on piano (check his dancing solo that rises right out of a gorgeously gnarled stretch from Vandever), Nick Dunston on bass, and Connor Parks on drums.
  • Mark Lomax Trio, “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” – Another of the finest Columbus composers is also one of our best drummers and bandleaders, Dr. Mark Lomax II. For Charles Mingus’s centennial, Lomax and his longtime collaborators Dean Hulett on bass and Eddie Bayard on tenor team up for loving, well-crafted versions of a number of Mingus’s finest compositions. This is one of my favorite pieces on Trio Plays Mingus, with a long, melodic bass intro that flowers into a soulful masterclass in group interplay about a minute in. Three of our greatest players digging into material they’ve been working with as long as they’ve been playing music, with nothing to prove but always the questing spirit for finding something new, of surpassing their own expectations. This rises and rises but never leaves the soulful, earthy qualities of the original piece behind; you could sing every solo in this if you had the knack.
  • Tigran Hamasyan featuring Mark Turner, “All The Things You Are” – Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan first caught my attention for his intricate compositions so his album-length detour into standards, StandArt with a sympathetic rhythm section of Matt Brewer and Justin Brown, and guests was a delightful surprise. This gorgeous version of one of my favorite standards features the great tenor player Mark Turner and the lines Hamasyan and Turner weave around one another leave me breathless.
  • Moor Mother featuring Nicole Mitchell, “ARMS SAVE” – Moor Mother’s Jazz Codes plays with and jousts the jazz influences that have always been present in her un-classifiable work. This track, a highlight in a record full of them, featuring multi-reedist and composer Nicole Mitchell, uses the classic poetic device of sliding sentence fragments around, watching them spark against each other, in the night-sky-tapestry of reeds and a subtle beat. “I’m so hot, but no fans, but at the stake of all your demands, guess my presence never been felt.”
  • Mali Obomsawin, “Blood Quantum (Nəwewəčəskawikαpáwihtawα)” – Bassist and bandleader Obomsawin’s Sweet Tooth is one of my favorite debuts in a long while and this 11-minute album closer merges an Obomsawin composition with a contemporary Native American chant written by Obomsawin, Lokotah Sanborn and Carol Dana of the Penobscot Nation with arranging assistance from Lancelot Knight of Muskoday First Nation, and it’s a stunning, defiant, swinging meshing of jazz playing with horns from Allison Burik, Noah Campbell, and the record’s co-producer Taylor Ho Bynum, and a rhythm section including drummer Savannah Harris and guitarist Miriam Elhajli and the music of Obomsawin’s (and the nation’s) heritage.
  • Tarbaby featuring Oliver Lake, “Purple” – The collective trio Tarbaby – pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits – is one of my favorite groups in contemporary jazz, for many years at this point, and some of my favorite work of theirs also brings in the saxophone giant Oliver Lake. This simmering free ballad featuring trumpeter Josh Lawrence is a perfect example of form meeting intention and lighting the flame of beauty.
  • Jacob Garchik, “Bricolage” – Garchik’s new record “Assembly” fits together pieces of improvisations with a killing quintet of Sam Newsome on soprano, Jacob Sacks on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums, into new compositions in a really beautiful way that feels like it builds on his last few records, Ye Olde and Clear Line and playing with some ideas from his film scores while also staying in touch with his lineage as a jazz trombone player.
  • Bobby Previte, “GAMBLE” – One of my great joys this year was getting together in the same place with my childhood friend Mike Gamble and his wife, filmmaker Devin Febboriello, after a break of several years. So it was an extra joy to get to tell him how much I loved his work on Bobby Previte’s Nine Tributes for Electric Band and ask him if it was intimidating to be the guitarist on a record that pays tribute to so many other amazing players that Previte had worked with, from Sonny Sharrock to Charlie Hunter to Nels Cline. And, of course, with the humility I’d expect, the answer was, “Oh man, of course.” But it says something that not only did Previte – who’s played with everybody – call him for this task, but one of the tributes is dedicated to Gamble. And it’s a crushing piece, a key example of an artist being truly seen by another.
  • Sonic Youth, “In & Out” – I loved the collection of Sonic Youth compilation rarities and outtakes this year, In/Out/In, varying from fully formed works to rehearsal space jams. The wordless vocals on this and sly krautrock rhythms kept giving me joy in the months since its release.
  • Angelica Sanchez Trio, “Before Sleep/The Sleeping Lady and The Giant that Watches Over Her” – One of the great pianists working in jazz today, Sanchez assembled an all-star rhythm section of Billy Hart and Michael Formanek for this formidable trio album. The newly composed “Before Sleep” section blends so perfectly into the Ellington piece it feels like they were made for one another.
  • Lara Downes, “Magnetic Rag” – I was late to the party with Lara Downes, discovering her with last year’s series of work by black American composers, but I made up for the newness of that fandom with enthusiasm, so I was ready for her Scott Joplin record Reflections. This piece is a prime example of how a subtle arrangement by Stephen Buck and her light but decisive touch on the piano can remind us of the gorgeous accessibility, and the big riffs in these 100+ year-old songs, reminding us that Joplin helped define where American music was going and that the artistry of Downes is helping keep it alive.
  • Sweet Teeth, “City of Fern” – Sweet Teeth is a band I love in town because I can never quite get my finger on what they’re doing before they’re onto the next thing, but it’s always good. Brothers Stew (guitar, electronics, vocals) and Sam (cello) Johnson have seemingly voracious appetites for sounds, genres, and approaches. With Body Weather, they made a record as good as the times I’ve had seeing them live. This song sets up a deceptively placid surface and subverts those expectations over and over again for its seven-minute run time. “Ghost walk through a city of fern. All those bell shaped flowers try to sing.”
  • Charles Mingus, “Fables of Faubus” – Much as I love Mingus, I balked at the price of The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s on Record Store Day so I had to find it electronically after multiple people told me I was an idiot. This joyous and rightfully enraged romp through one of his classics is a key example of why this document is important and how his songs still glow 50 years after being recorded. A particularly good showcase for Jon Faddis on trumpet – whose other work did not wow me like he does here – and John Forster on piano about whom I knew nothing.
  • Wild Up, “Stay On It” – The Wild Up ensemble presents this favorite of mine of the Julius Eastman compositions, arranged by Christopher Rountree and Chris Kallmeyer, that captures all of its joy, its ebullient intensity, its encouragement to keep going.
  • Ethan Iverson, “For Ellen Raskin” – Iverson made his best, most consistent solo record with his Blue Note debut Every Note is True, making excellent use of a spectacular rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass. I can’t count how many records I have with those gentlemen on them, but I can promise there’s not a bad one. And having three melodicists but who also know and love the simplicity of comping, of finding that pocket in a rhythm section, makes every tune on here shine. For me, this is one of the best melodies Iverson’s ever written, begging to be untangled, played with, and admired.
  • Fred Hersch, “Pastorale” – Speaking of melodicists, pianist Fred Hersch has been setting that bar high for decades, and his Breath by Breath, with a rhythm section of Drew Gress and Joachen Rueckert and the Crosby Street String Quartet, is another glowing example. An example of being perfectly lovely without being syrupy or contrived.
  • Mal Waldron, “You Don’t Know What Love Is” – I got into Mal Waldron after reading he was Billie Holliday’s last accompanist around the same time my late high school/early college self got extremely into Steve Lacy, who collaborated with Waldron for many years. I remember being in Portland and seeing a whole section of mostly solo Mal Waldron discs, getting two, and being blown away by both. Everything record of his I’ve ever found had something to teach me, and this year’s Searching in Grenoble from 1978 is a prime example. In excellent sound, in a transitional moment in his life, and it all comes out in a series of stormy pieces like this dissection of a favorite standard of mine, played with the thump of a martini shaker hitting the bar, then delicately as playing curls of smoke.
  • Peter Brotzmann/Milford Graves/William Parker, “Side B” – This year’s Historic Music Past Tense Future is a remarkable document of an explosive meeting between three artists who worked with each other over the years, all growing out of ’60s free jazz. Brotzmann always plays best with people with strong senses of rhythm and the storytelling drums of Graves bring out something different in his playing from the soulful pulse of Hamid Drake or the crunching surprise of Han Bennink. And Parker’s bass, that knew both so well, is a magic meeting place. This reminds me how lucky I was to live when all three of them walked the Earth and to make time to see Parker soon and Brotzmann whenever he next hits the states.
  • Anadol, “Gizli Duygular” – Anadol, the electronic music project of Turkish artist Gözen Atila has a sense of going inside oneself – the record Felicita is a favorite thing to write to – but there’s always a sense of play, the kind of joyful curiosity every meditation teacher always told me I should approach meditating with and the kind of joyful curiosity I try to approach writing and anything I absorb culturally (but often fall short of).
  • Immanuel Wilkins, “Fugitive Ritual, Selah” – Rising star saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins’ latest record for Blue Note, The 7th Hand, is a triumph, a connected suite where each piece makes its own impression. This composition features the core quartet of Micah Thomas on piano, Kweku Sumbry on drums, and Rolling Stones member Daryl Johns on bass, with subtle but gripping interplay and a melody that stuck with me as soon as I heard it.
  • Elvin Jones, “13 Avenue B” – Elvin Jones is very well recorded but there aren’t a lot of examples of him this early as a bandleader after leaving the classic Coltrane quartet. This smoking 1967 set from Pookie’s Pub in SoHo. This piece of classic hard bop features a prime example of his hook-up with bassist Wilbur Little, familiar from Jones’ late ’60s studio dates as a leader but also fiery playing from Joe Farrell, best known for his Return to Forever work, and pianist Billy Greene.
  • Taru Alexander, “Kojo Time” – Drummer and bandleader Taru Alexander’s Echoes of the Masters pays tribute to his inspirations, including his father Roland Alexander. This impassioned romp through a Roland Alexander classic highlights saxophonist Antoine Roney as the entire quintet does a spectacular job with the piece.
  • JD Allen, “This World is a Mean World” – JD Allen, with maybe my favorite tone of any working tenor player, continues his deep dive into blues and the roots of American music with Americana Vol. 2, using the same empathetic rhythm section of Gregg August and Rudy Royston, adding guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter to the mix to powerful effect.
  • John Scofield, “Junco Partner” – Maybe the first jazz guitarist I was a fan of, John Scofield’s first solo guitar record, self-titled, is a mix of strong originals and classics. This version of the blues traditional – which I learned from the Clash then went back to the Dr. John, the Professor Longhair, the Louis Jordan – highlights Scofield’s blues background and the smoothness of the ideas flowing out of him.
  • Johnny Gandelsman, “Barbary Coast, 1955” – Violinist Johnny Gandelsman went to many of our great American composers for his rapturous and sometimes heartbreaking This is America. For this piece, for five-string violin, Terry Riley wrote a gorgeous homage to a seedy strip of San Francisco in the ’50s.
  • Antoine Fatout, “Roger’s Riff” – Columbus drummer Antoine Fatout has been making noise as a sideman – I first heard him with great guitarist Brett Burleson – and with his own Trio Fa2. This debut record teams him with two of Columbus’s treasures we sometimes share with the world – Roger Hines on bass, best known for a long stretch in Ray Charles’ band, and guitarist Stan Smith (Moacir Santos, Madrugada, Descendre) – for a swinging, melodic record. This is a favorite of mine but there isn’t a bad tune on the album.
  • Oren Ambarchi, “IV” – Oren Ambarchi’s Shebang is one of my favorite recent examples of composition by accumulation. The guitarist brings in collaborators, including drummer Joe Talia, Necks pianist Chris Abrahams, pedal steel player BJ Cole, 12 string guitarist Julia Reidy, and lets them do what they do in cells, slowly drawing it together into this final, jubilant movement.
  • Isaiah Ceccarelli, “Toute Clarte m’est obscure: V. Aubade” – I fucking love an aubade, though I knew the poetic form before I discovered the musical. This fifth movement of Ceccarelli’s Toute Clarte m’est obscure composition centers on Ellen Weiser’s voice that, along with Katelyn Clark’s organ, feels like the sun rising on your face.
  • Mike Baggetta/Jim Keltner/Mike Watt, “Everywhen We Go” – This title track of the new album from this terrific collaboration has a cool spaghetti western feeling, set up as much by Keltner’s crisp drum rolls and edge-of-the-cymbal work as Baggett’s echoing twang and Watt’s melodic heartbeat bass.
  • James Brandon Lewis, “An Anguish Departed” – Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis seems to pop up everywhere these days. This quartet is probably my favorite of the working bands, with Aruán Ortiz on piano, Brad Jones on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums, and Molecular Systematic Music Live captures them at the height of their powers. This mournful throb of a song features wrenching solos from Lewis and Ortiz.
  • Jeremy Pelt, “Still Standing” – Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt follows last year’s conceptual tribute masterpiece with a record of mostly originals, including this one, cinematic in nature as befits the title, and about getting down and playing. The tight band here includes Chien Chien Lu on vibes (check out that buoyant solo), Vicente Archer on bass, Allan Mednard on drums (throughout, his comping is a wonder), Victor Gould on piano, and Brittany Anjou on synth around Pelt’s razor-sharp trumpet sound.
  • Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens, “Hornets” – In Common III, the latest in a series of collaboratively led records by saxophonist Smith and guitarist Stevens, with an all-time rhythm section of Kris Davis, Dave Holland, and Terri Lyne Carrington, is a perfect example of how tight and beauitful this kind of small group jazz playing can be. One of my favorite things in jazz is hearing how the group comes out of a solo and there are so many excellent examples in this concise five minute piece, particularly after riveting solos from Stevens and Davis, back to that infectious chorus with meaty transitions.
  • Dezron Douglas, “Coyoacán” – Dezron Douglas leads a killer band including George Burton on piano, Joe Dyson Jr on drums, and Emilio Modeste on sax, through a series of terrific compositions on his new Atalayan. This smoldering tune is a highlight on an album full of highlights.
  • Julian Lage, “Heart is a Drum” – Guitarist Julian Lage continues to refine his approach and expand his field of vision with every outing. On View With a Room, his most developed album yet, he re-teams with tight rhythm section Jorge Roeder and Dave King and adds influence turned peer Bill Frisell into the mix for ten great originals. This one grabbed me by the lapels almost immediately.
  • Kali Malone, “Living Torch I” – Composer Kali Malone trades in the pipe organ she’s best known for on Living Torch for a series of synthesizers in a trio format with trombonist Mats Äleklint and bass clarinetist Isak Hedtjärn. With that instrumentation, long, painterly tones are almost expected but Malone and the other two players use those in a way that’s as surprising and fresh as it feels natural and organic. These two pieces are like watching the shadows change as the sun rises over a canopy of trees.
  • Sarah Davachi, “Harmonies in Bronze” – One of my favorite contemporary composers, Sarah Davachi didn’t disappoint on the 2022 record Two Sisters. This pipe organ solo builds slowly and, appropriate to its name, takes on sculptural qualities. The entire record is stunning but this piece makes me want to simultaneously unpack it and just sit back and watch the light drip out of it.
  • Makaya McCraven, “Seventh String” – I had a harder time finding a way into McCraven’s sprawling In These Times, and I suspect seeing more of the material live (after the tastes we got in the excellent Wexner Center show) will snap it into focus. That said, I immediately loved a handful of songs, including this stormy slow jam.
  • Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, “Have You Felt Lately?” – This opening track from LA based composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith uses elastic tones, sudden shifts in rhythm, and treated vocals to build a doorway to an entire universe, shimmering and shifting.
  • Dirty Bird, “The Question” – This loping house track kicks off producer Dirty Bird’s excellent Wagenmuzik album. The chopped, moaning vocal “Is it real?” repeats and folds over on itself around the hard but distant drums, like the soundtrack to a montage at sunset over a dirty street, day melting into night, one world rubbing up against the next.
  • Anna Butterss, “La Danza” – Anna Butterss, known as a bassist but playing everything on this standout track from her excellent Activities record, creates a soundworld that’s full of details and nuance but here never rising above a steady throb, a slow dance in the waning moonlight.
  • Tyshawn Sorey Trio, “Autumn Leaves” – I’ve seen Tyshawn Sorey a lot over the years in many contexts, mostly focused around his compositions or avant-garde improvisation (I still cherish seeing him in the trio with Ingrid Laubrock and Kris Davis at the late, lamented Cornelia Street Cafe). So it was a little bit of a surprise to see this record of standards with pianist (and Columbus native) Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer come out, but once I heard it it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Standards I’ve heard a million times, like this one, in versions that hold up to any I’ve heard by any of the greats.
  • RedmanMehldauMcBrideBlade, “Rejoice” – The second reunion record of this quartet that was so influential to me and so many others in the ’90s, LongGone, did not disappoint. This bouncing Joshua Redman composition gives he and Mehldau plenty of space to stretch and I’m especially in love with the almost taunting call and response inside McBride’s playing.
  • Tony Monaco, “Lush Life” – One of Columbus’s keyboard treasuers, maestro of the B-3 Tony Monaco, made his best record in years, Four Brothers, teaming up with saxophonist Eddie Bayard, guitarist Kevin Turner, and drummer Willie Barthel III. Here they take on maybe my favorite standard of all time, digging deep on a classic slow-burn rendition.
  • Charles Lloyd with Zakir Hussain and Julian Lage, “Tales of Rumi” – I enjoyed all three of the Charles Lloyd Trios records but I think my favorite was this collaboration with tabla master Zakir Hussain and virtuoso guitarist Julian Lage. The three approach the situation as equals and the equal weight on each instrument shines and lets the difference in tonal quality shine through this winding, snaking piece. As usual with these, I try to end with a prayer. Thank you all for reading and listening.
Best Of Playlist record reviews

Playlist – 2022 Songs

As with the last few years, the songs on this playlist are a combination of selections from my favorite records of the year, songs on records that might not have worked for me all the way through but I couldn’t get out of my head, and a smattering from some favorite revivals. “Songs” vs. “Spaces” mean the pieces are mostly – not always – more concise, and mostly, but not always, have vocals. It’s obviously subjective, and if I did the same exercise three months from now, probably 25% of each would fall on the other side of the fence.

  • Anteloper, “Earthlings” – Not even bothering with a spoiler warning: each of the playlists starts with Jaimie Branch. Even only interacting with her in those small bursts, I was really shaken by her death, and the work she put out this year makes that loss hurt even more because she was hitting her stride. This project with drummer Jason Nazary, produced and with extra instrumentation from the great Jeff Parker, was one of the most beguiling anything I heard all year. The stuttered, light drum ‘n’ bass drumming and infectious, overlapping synth and guitar hooks create a perfect background for Branch’s laid-back, mysterious vocal that’s somewhere between ’70s proto-rap, ’50s jazz poetry, and ’90s underground hip-hop, 100% breezy. “We are not the earthlings that you know. It really makes you think, though. Really makes me think. Really makes me drink, yo.”
  • Florence and the Machine, “Free” – There isn’t a song I don’t love on Florence and the Machine’s most fully realized record, Dance Fever, but this one has my favorite opening line of any song this year: “Sometimes I wonder if I should be medicated,” and a line toward the end that kept me going and gave me hope throughout the year: “Is this how it is? Is this how it’s always been? To exist in the face of suffering and death and somehow still keep singing?” With a groove that works as well for dancing alone in your bedroom or in the crush of strangers and a vocal that reminds me of my favorite dramatic Nick Cave moments but doesn’t sound like anyone else.
  • Eli “Paperboy” Reed, “I”m Bringing Home Good News” – I’ve enjoyed Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s detours of the last couple of albums a lot but hearing him back with a gutbucket rhythm section and a raging torrent of horns felt like coming home in the best way. And grappling with the catalog of one of the great American songwriters, Merle Haggard, throughout Down Every Road is a perfect mix. This ironic kiss-off hits exactly the right tones of righteous anger and righteous exuberance at freedom. “I was sitting downtown in a tavern when I made up my mind to go. And I knew you would be so glad to be free; I just thought to call to let you know.”
  • Soul Glo, “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?)” –  Philly’s Soul Glo made their strongest, most expansive record yet without sacrificing any of the intensity or fury that hardcore’s always been known for. Not just an adrenaline shot – though it’s damn sure that too – this song is a journey, with some of the most impassioned, empathetic singing I’ve heard all year, from Pierce Jordan. “Giving so littlе takes so much, putting in work to look like he don’t givе a fuck. It’s worth it to pretend you never get wound up and shrug it off and put half on the Sag’ cusp. Just kidding, I’m’a hold it forever.”
  • Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra with Catherine Russell, “River’s Invitation” – One of the last shows I saw in 2020, at LPR for Winter Jazzfest, was the MTO with Cat Russell singing, and it exceeded my high expectations for those two titans of not only American music but specifically for interpretations. So I was overjoyed when a record came out documenting that collaboration, Good Time Music. Their take on one of my favorite Percy Mayfield compositions balances a boisterous swing, a keen wit, and a dark heart. The arrangement highlights the longtime camaraderie of this band, giving everyone space to stretch out without losing the path, and Bernstein’s greasy trumpet solo and Russell’s loose, wry vocal send it to outer space. “Well, I don’t want to leave him, because I know he’s still alive. Someday I’m gonna find him and I’ll take him for a ride. And we’ll spend our days together in our home beneath the tide.”
  • Say She She, “Fortune Teller” – Dropping back into a more laid-back gear with Say She She, a newish Colemine signing who reminds me more of Philly roller rink sweetness and sun-dappled Cali soul than the harder funk and soul the label first hooked me with. The infectious harmonies of Nya Parker Gazelle, Piya Malik & Sabrina Cunningham, and the rich organ lines kept this in rotation for me all year, and I can’t wait to see this Brooklyn band live. “When you look up to the sky, and you can’t tell how high it is when you’re spinning into space, and you’re starting to lose faith, be safe. With me.”
  • Lady Wray, “Through It All” – I’d been a fan of Nicole Wray’s work as a featured artist and harmony singer through most of my adult life, from her work on Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, with Lee Fields, the Black Keys, the duo Lady. But somehow her solo work missed me until Piece of Me knocked me out of my damn seat. A perfect slice of soul music, calling on all eras of the music’s history and making it all feel brand new. “Through it all, I can’t complain; it feels so good. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
  • Maya de Vitry, “How Bad I Wanna Live” – Someone else I was late coming to, but violinist and singer de Vitry’s Violet Light gave me quite a bit of comfort this year, and I thought this song fit between these two in the sense of a sun-and-shadow cocktail painting the reasons to go on, the reasons to keep living and loving, even when it doesn’t make sense or when the reasons on the other side are stacked so tall. “Here on my knees on the wet, red clay, Death sings below in the ocean. All you goats and angels, I’m not dying today. I’m not dying today.”
  • Gabriel Kahane, “Sit Shiva” – Gabriel Kahane’s maybe my favorite orchestral pop singer-songwriter, but trying to put him in that box doesn’t quite do him justice. His arrangements perpetually surprise me but in a way that feels perfect, and his ability to capture the pieces of life we want to look away from or would brush past in concise, carved lyrics that always project a love for the world makes me want to work harder. This closing track from his Magnificent Bird, with Casey Foubert and Joseph Lorge on guitars and Elizabeth Zinman on backing vocals around Kahane, talks about how our rituals have transformed with technology in unsparing, gorgeous detail. “And the photographs of great-grandchildren multiplied, these two ancient lovers walking side by side— his body ravaged, and hers turned to light—He raised his hand to speak at last, and everyone held their breath or gasped as he said, ‘Goodbye, my darling, goodbye.'”
  • Leyla McCalla, “Memory Song” – I deeply regret not seeing the mixed media performance of Leyla McCalla’s song cycle that accompanies the album when I was at Big Ears, but the record that resulted, Breaking the Thermometer, had my heart almost immediately, Cellist-singer-songwriter McCalla weaves great covers of songwriters like Caetano Veloso and Frantz Casseus with astonishing originals like this one, for this travelogue/reckoning with her family’s history and the wider histories of Haiti and the US. “How much does a memory weigh?”
  • Beth Orton, “Arms Around a Memory” – A similarly slinky, mysterious groove – in this case from Shazad Ismaily and Tom Skinner – powers this standout from one of my favorite records from a songwriter I’ve been besotted with for over 20 years. A tribute to New York, sometimes obliquely and sometimes in your face, and to sorting through those memories that define us around the edges. “Well, I put my arms around a memory though you always told me not to try. Didn’t we make a beautiful life in your eight-floor walk-up that night?”
  • SG Goodman, “All My Love is Coming Back to Me” – Grittier but also working with a cyclical, hypnotic groove, this song kept nudging me, nagging at me, in the face of the almost impossible call to choose a single song off Goodman’s punch in the gut collection Teeth Marks. “I’ve seen the light of kingdoms coming, answered the call to rock and roll. Chased down the night that someone’s holding onto, and I kept the fight within my soul.”
  • Earthgang featuring Ari Lennox, “Run Too” – This standout from the terrific 2022 album Ghetto Gods from Atlanta rap duo Earthgang features a slashing chorus from Ari Lennox and introspective lyrics over a thrumming, insistent beat featuring gauzy synth chords and sparkling piano with plenty of space. “So who can I open up to? Probably this bottle; this sack of weed, it talks to me. We see eye to eye. We knee to knee, praying for some shit, ain’t sure if it exists.”
  • Terence Etc., “Terence’s — Love” – Terence Nance’s record VORTEX is one of the most mind-expanding pop/R&B records I’ve heard in years. The way he leans into the hairpin turns, the surprising harmony, the doubled sax and keys solo that feels like it’s melting in front of me, and makes it all sing like classic basement jams is a magic trick of the highest order. “Feeding on each other and loving every minute. I’m not grown. Tasted like right at first, but all wrong.”
  • Sick Thoughts, “Someone I Can Talk To” – New Orleans’ raw garage-punk band Sick Thoughts, for a long time held down by singer and only permanent member Drew Owen, has always been a live act you miss at your own peril if you’re lucky enough they come through your town. But – whether influenced by a more stable lineup or just woodshedding on his own – with Heaven is No Fun, they finally made a great album. This song takes up on some of the questioning/figuring out what keeps us going themes of the last few tracks, but with snarling guitars and a hard-edged bounce. “There are sometimes when I don’t know where I am. And there are somethings that I’ll never, never understand. Oh, no.”
  • Big Joanie, “What Are You Waiting For” – To my ears, London trio Big Joanie took a big step up on their second record Back Home. That huge, slashing riff and the spiky leads from Stephanie Phillips play perfectly with Estella Adeyeri’s big bass lines and the dry, crisp drumming of Chardine Taylor-Stone. “You couldn’t make it back. You wore the weight that you earned. It’s all yours; she’s not the only one living without a million rituals from a time forgotten.”
  • Scrunchies, “New What” – With their own sophomore record, Scrunchies also felt to me like they went further toward defining themselves. I love Feral Beach front to back, they were my favorite set at Dirtnap Records’ anniversary and that almost martial drumming and melodic bass groove the song sets up always catches my ear. That moment when Laura Larson’s guitar explodes through those textures is always exciting. “Elevate to get translucent – tape your feelings to the wall. Emerge from below fully formed. Put me away when I destroy because I’m bored. Tear apart is not enough when I want more more more.”
  • Billy Woods featuring Mike Ladd, “Christine” – Rapper-songwriter Billy Woods’ Aethiopes brought him to another level of recognition, and for good reason. With tracks all produced by his co-writer Preservation and judiciously chosen guests, it evokes a mood of dread and possibility without feeling monochromatic. This track with Mike Ladd, one of my gateway drugs to this sort of underground hip-hop, is a favorite in an album I couldn’t find a bad song on anywhere. “Lulled by streetlamps and the blackness between, my parents’ argument picking up speed. In and out of bad dreams. That’s what they said when they saw him dead in the road. Now I know it was the shadow of them black wings. Unmarked followed us for ten blocks.”
  • Lucky Daye, “Fever” – I knew Lucky Daye’s songwriting but I missed his debut album. Candydrip caught my ear immediately, one of the best contemporary R&B records I’ve heard in a while, those slashing, static-y cymbals and the echoing backing vocals on the track enhance the sweaty, breathless quality of the love-as-disease metaphor he slinks through. “All night chase you, no lime; another round to help me pass the time. Maybe this mary will help get it out my mind. Feels so right, yeah, ooh, and these pills don’t cut the passion.”
  • Brian Damage, “You’ve Got Friends” – I loved Brian Baker’s earlier band Brat Curse but his project/band (sometimes featuring five or six people live but mostly recorded entirely by Baker with some judicious guests) Brian Damage encompasses more influences, more of the world, and makes more space for his idiosyncratic look at the world; one of my favorite Columbus bands in a while. Tis lead-off track to their delightful Shit For Brains is co-written by Alissa Paynick and plays with ’90s lo-fi textures – starting with the modem sound – and a disaffected vocal couching a phenomenal, mean hook. “I live my life online. I don’t have one any other time.”
  • Sweet Knives, “Oh Danny” – A more direct but just as specific and powerful look at infatuation by one of my favorite songwriters of the last 20+ years, Memphis’ Alicja Trout, in what’s grown into her most flexible band, Sweet Knives. This song has a riff worthy of every guitarist I’ve loved since Johnny Thunders and a hook as good as the Shangri-Las, it’s a pop masterpiece from someone who writes more of them than anybody and a keystone of a record Spritzeria which Anne and I saw them do most of live that confirms the songs are as good as they’ve ever done. “Oh, Danny, did you come back for more? I’m hearing growling, squealing, scratching down on the cellar door. Oh, Danny, don’t you know I believe you – in what you say and what you do. Oh, Danny, don’t you know I could never be through with you.”
  • Aoife O’Donovan, “Age of Apathy” – The first record I fully loved this year, O’Donovan’s collaboration with producer Joe Henry had a slower build for me than her earlier solo records. I love it, but I had to grapple with it a little more – this title track, though, caught me immediately with the sense of drama and atmospherics sharpened to a fine point and one of my favorite combinations of lyric and melody she’s written, leading up to a beautiful Joni Mitchell quote/nod that avoids the way that kind of trope usually feels tacked on. “Under the shade of a quaking aspen tree; we came for New England’s party, but the colors haven’t started, so it’s just you and me.”
  • Keb’ Mo’, “Good to Be (Home Again)” – Keb’ Mo’ was one of a million artists I got turned onto by our NPR station WCBE when I was in high school and saw him not long after at the Southern Theater. I haven’t kept up on everything he’s done since, but his blend of smooth Americana and country blues still has a place in my heart, and once in a while, he still bowls me over. This title track off his 2022 record, co-written with Beastie Boys collaborator and fellow LA native Money Mark, and co-produced with Vince Gill, is probably my favorite example of that formula. The honeyed melody feels like the warmth of old streets you had some issues with but comes back in the fondness of your memory and the joy of having made it, of being able to tell the tale. “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere. Good to be back, good to be home again.”
  • John Moreland, “Neon Middle June” – I’ve been a fan for a while, but John Moreland’s Birds in the Ceiling stunned me, the kind of not-quite-departure that reminded me a little of Fred Eaglesmith’s Dusty. When I was lucky enough to see him at Skully’s, these songs translated just as well solo with an acoustic guitar, keeping their intensity and atmosphere, but the perfect production and subtle arrangements – the electronics on this slow creep of a relationship on the brink – co-produced with Matt Pence from Centro-Matic who also plays drums and accompanied by the great Bonnie Whitmore and John Calvin Abney on everything else really make this record indelible. “When you were a child, your faith was automatic; asleep in steady traffic, navigating western static. And what if who I am is who I used to be? Darling, you know that’s the thought that paralyzes me.”
  • Anaïs Mitchell, “On Your Way (Felix Song)” – Probably the new song I played the most this year and it was always there for me. Seeing her do it live with Anne, Heather, and Adam at Brooklyn Made was stunning – it had been six or seven years since I’d seen Mitchell live – but I also have specific memories of this in my headphones, walking out of the subway into the streets she’s talking about in New York, or an early morning stroll through the Pushkin Gardens in Mexico City, or downtown Columbus looking for some coffee and a hangover-killing lunch. Thinking about the people I miss in the same way she pays tribute to her old friend, and thinking about how perfectly crafted this easy-rolling, questioning shuffle is; and the whole self-titled record is packed with songs this good. “I remember when you were a seeker staring into a stereo speaker. Kick drum and someone singing made you one with everything. I remember when the tape was rolling, you were going where the take was going. No regrets and no mistakes.”
  • Amanda Shires, “Fault Lines” – Amanda Shires’ songs and records get better and better. I remember seeing her with Anne at Rumba supporting My Piece of Land and feeling like she’d broken through. But even being a fan didn’t prepare me for the textures and power on Take It Like a Man, produced by Lawrence Rothman. Another record I had an extremely hard time finding a song off of, but this solo written song, with its dramatic strings lighting up the room that recall Orbison but also Charles Stepney and crushing guitar solo, I probably played three times before I moved onto the next song. “I cried, I asked, and I bawled, curled up on the floor with it all: all the time, the want, the overwhelming volume of breathing.”
  • Here It Is Band featuring Luciana Souza, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” – This year brought with it a surfeit of strong, consistent tribute records , including Here It Is, the Blue Note Records tribute to singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. A core group of jazz musicians, including Bill Frisell, Immanuel Wilkins, Larry Goldings, Scott Colley, and Nate Smith, provide intimate, sympathetic backings that use all of their skills, no one feels like they’re slumming on material that’s not interesting, backing a series of expertly chosen vocalists. My first exposure to Luciana Souza was on her record of musical settings of one of Cohen’s influences, Neruda, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Her reading on this, one of my favorite Cohen songs and a guidepost for finding equanimity and grace in art (even if we fall short of it in life), might be the new standard I hold all others to. “I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time. Walk me to the corner now, our steps will always rhyme. You know my love goes with you, as your love stays with me. It’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea.”
  • The Delines, “Little Earl” – This torchy collaboration between Willy Vlautin and Amy Boone just gets better and deeper. Hard-luck narratives are rarely as sharply carved, and the arrangements have touches of lounge jazz but understand the sense of dread in those little rooms that cure the walls like generations of cigarette smoke and spilled tequila in the low-pile carpet. The strings and Hi Records-y horns come in at exactly the right moment around Cory Gray’s organ, and those little backing vocals stabs add up to a song that makes me want to write another short story, want to try harder. “Little Earl’s brother is bleeding in the backseat. It’s been twenty miles, and he can’t stop crying. Passing the houses on stilts on Holly Beach; the A/C don’t work, and Earl’s sick in the Gulf Coast heat.”
  • Ashley McBryde, “Straight Tequila Night” – The Dan Auerbach-produced John Anderson tribute was a chance to get reacquainted with a whole catalog of songs I grew up loving. This one probably most of all, I adored the melody as a kid before I had any idea about the meat of the song, that sense of trying to keep it together and knowing, like clockwork, it’s going to explode in messy ways and hoping the people nearby will tolerate you even if they don’t put you back together because they’re hoping you’ll be better next time all told from the remove of the bartender. And Ashley McBryde, one of my favorite contemporary country singer-songwriters knocks it out of the park. “If you really want to know, she comes here a lot. She loves to hear the music and dance. K-13 is her favorite song. If you play it, you might have a chance.”
  • Rose Gold, “Addicted” – A song without the remove of the last couple, written from the perspective of someone in the middle of that struggle with themselves. Rose Gold’s vocal, tightly coiled but glowing red, and the big drums around a keyboard line and cinematic synth strings, add up to a new favorite use of the perennial love-as-addiction metaphor. “I know I said I didn’t need your help but I do. Why am I not fucking perfect? Why can’t I kick this shit?”
  • Craig Finn, “Messing With the Settings” – Legacy of Rentals didn’t move me as much as the last few Craig Finn records but this song was a sledgehammer in the gut, a flawless example of what he does better than anyone working.  The narrative gives largely equal weight and care to both the characters, and it rings true for any of us who’ve had those immediately intense friendships in one bar or another, with a well-calibrated, sweeping arrangement driven by keys and strings around spoken verses and sung choruses. “She had a dwindling grace and a faith in the industry that never really made sense to me.”
  • Cardiac Poet featuring Baba zora, Masufuria, Nate Speaks, Mbokani – I don’t speak any of the Kenyan languages, so I can’t comment on the narrative from this riveting track from spoken word artist turned rapper Cardiac Poet, with collaborators, but it also uses prominent strings and keys, and it feels like it has the same urgency; like it’s coming from the same place as the last few songs.
  • Horsegirl, “Anti-glory” – One of my favorite new bands, pal Steve Kirsch turned me onto this Chicago trio, and I was lucky enough to see them on their first headlining tour this year. The clatter and stretched-out guitar remind me of a less noisy mid-period Sonic Youth, and it’s been a joy watching them grow into their power (everyone I know who saw them open for Yo La Tengo this Hanukkah raved about what a different band they seemed from earlier in the year), so the thought that their terrific debut record Versions of Modern Performance is a harbinger of even better things is very exciting. “Turning away, can’t make it out, out loud. Now, feel a fever flow through the town.”
  • The Weeknd, “Out of Time” – The Weeknd’s newer one, Dawn FM, better synthesizes his earlier portraits of painful, cracked interiority with his pop sensibility than his earlier records, and this track with its swooping synthesized woodwinds and hand claps, is existential loneliness in the heart of couples skate perfection. “Say ‘I love you, girl’, but I’m out of time. Say, ‘I’m there for you,’ but I’m out of time.”
  • Charli XCX, “Every Rule” – I knew Charli XCX for the big dancefloor smashes but on Crash I was increasingly drawn to the ballads, especially this conflicted, paranoid spray of colors and lust, that keyboard solo toward the end of the song is a stiletto stab in the solar plexus. “Met up late night by the Bowery and in the morning we got coffee. Acted like strangers and told no friends, it wasn’t easy to pretend.”
  • Punch Brothers, “The Last Thing on my Mind” – This highlight from the Punch Brothers’ Tony Rice re-imagining, Hell on Church Street, felt like it went with the previous couple of songs because it takes the warmth of the Tom Paxton original and squeezes it like trying to turn coal into a diamond, like trying to cram the intensity of the feelings of regret into the pit of your stomach. Hearing this band of virtuosos play with this much clenched restraint is incredibly moving to me. “Are you going away with no word of farewell? Will there be not a trace left behind? Well, I could have loved you better; I didn’t mean to be unkind. You know that was the last thing on my mind.”
  • George Strait, “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” – Another of those hyperfocused, high quality tribute records with a greatly deserving focus was Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver. As expected, it feels like every great who had a few years with a Texas address shows up on this, digging into one of the greatest catalogs from a state that’s given us so many indisputable great songwriters. George Strait came up in the lone star state a few years after Shaver broke through and he brings the appropriate gravitas and twinkle in his eye that made him probably the pre-eminent country start of my lifetime, laying way back on this quintessential neo-honky tonk tune and giving it possibly its definitive reading. “Three fingers whiskey pleasures the drinkers; moving does more than the same thing for me. Willy, he tells me that doers and thinkers say moving’s the closest thing to being free.”
  • Sarah Borges, “Lucky Day” – Continuing her fruitful collaboration with producer Eric Ambel, Borges’ Together Alone is another series of rock-solid songs that draw on every aspect of the American roots tradition with hooks I can’t get out of my head, and killer playing (in this case featuring Borges’ partner and former Bottle Rockets’ bassist Keith Voegele, John Perrin on drums, and Ambel on lead guitar around her rhythm guitar). The soaring quality of this one reminds me of the first song of hers I gravitated toward, “The Day We Met,” without feeling like a retread. “I get better at playing the numbers: take my chances and wait. I’ve been waiting forever.”
  • Combo Chimbita, “La Perla” – This New York band helped bring Colombian Chimbita music to prominence for white American music fans like me, while working with other elements of the music they’re around and dealing with the contemporary world through the lens of the music they love. Their record this year IRE is their most diverse, focused, and potent, big grooves fused to a righteous anger around Carolina Oliveros’ flamethrower vocals.
  • Ice Spice, “Munch (Feelin’ U)” – One of my favorite new rappers and a pulsing, hard-edged example of the new wave of drill. This was easily my favorite of the all-great singles Ice Spice put out this year. “Saying you love me but what do you mean? Pretty as fuck and he like that I’m mean.”
  • Black Thought and Danger Mouse featuring Michael Kiwanuka, “Aquamarine” – I fell for the Roots early, high school I think, and Black Thought finally has a solo record as good as his best work with the home team. The dusty, left-turn-riddled beats from Danger Mouse get a perfect showcase between Black Thought’s and Kiwanuka’s vocals. “Ever patiently waiting with the demons we deserve. Better be willing to pay with every dream that you deferred.”
  • Garbage Greek, “Here We Go” – Garbage Greek grew into one of my favorite Columbus bands over the last couple of years and they solidified that standing with their best album Quality Garbage, with lead vocalist and guitarist Lee Mason  leading the charge, the melodic bass lines and harmonies of Patrick Koch, Jason Winner’s driving but also nuanced drumming and the secret sauce of Adam Scoppa’s additional percussion and backing vocals, it’s a nigh perfect rock band, in the ’60s mode but not beholden to it. “Am I right? Is this the one?”
  • Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, “Talkin’ To Myself” – One of my favorite singers added some additional textures to their work and made their best record, Nightroamer, with the production assistance of Pete Anderson. This organ-laced stomper, tinged with acid guitar, is a favorite example that killed me live before the album came out and was an instant favorite when I finally got the record. “Lookin’ at cats on the corner. Pills in the kitchen for my cough. Bad shit going down on the border. Bad brain don’t ever turn off.”
  • Wesley Bright, “Oh, Think About It” – Cleveland’s finest soul singer, Wesley Bright, continues to broaden his palette without leaving everything that made us love him behind, bringing the horns and organ back on this killer track with a sprightly northern soul beat and doubled backing vocals that send this piece of longing into the stars. “Look in the mirror, you’ll see things much clearer. Then you’ll believe and see why she wanted you to leave.”
  • Call Me Rita, “Measure Twice, Cut Once” – Another of my favorite Columbus bands, Call Me Rita takes poet-visual artist Vanessa Jean Speckman and teams her with a band of heavy hitters, including her partner Micah Schnabel from Two Cow Garage on guitar and backing vocals, Jay Gasper (best known for his work with Lydia Loveless) on guitar and keys, Todd May (who Anne has called the best songwriter in Columbus and has exquisite taste in other songwriters he accompanies) on bass and backing vocals, and Jason Winner who I mentioned earlier with Garbage Greek on drums. This is a perfect, furious response to the world on fire that I went back to over and over again. “The creditors keep calling me. How much more can I bleed?”
  • The Sparklers, “Late Great Saturday Night” – One of my favorite newer bands in the vein of the Replacements. The Sparklers hit my radar when pal Steve Kirsch joined them on drums, leading up to 2022’s sparkling Miss Philadelphia record and it’s jam packed with witty lyrics, sharp playing, and hooks on top of hooks. “What blasphemies come alive? Still learning the language of loss.”
  • Hurray for the Riff Raff, “PIERCED ARROWS” – My love of Hurray for the Riff Raff has always been about Alynda Segarra’s songs and their Life on Earth is full of excellent examples. The electronic throb and echoing drums of this song create the perfect atmosphere for a vocal that goes from the edge of broken to profound declamations from the rooftops. “This was the place that fell apart; you were the one to break it. I don’t believe in anything. This whole fucking world is changing.”
  • Swamp Dogg, “I Need a Job” – Jerry Williams has been making raw, perfect records in his Swamp Dogg persona since 1970 and the renaissance of recent years has been an amazing pleasure to witness. His new one, I Need a Job… So I can Buy More Autotune finds him in fine witty, acerbic form, riding a classic, horn-and-harmonica laden groove. “Food is so high, it would be cheaper if we ate the morning.”
  • Pillbox Patti, “Good People” – Songwriter Nicolette Hayford’s Pillbox Patti alter-ego/debut album is a collection of unflinching portraits of people she has affection for without letting them off the hook. This song pairs a sinister groove with an entrancing, elevated conversational vocal. “They say the good die young; well, I don’t believe it. ‘Cause look at us: a little fucked up, but we’re still breathing.”
  • Lyle Lovett, “The Mocking Ones” – This original on Lyle Lovett’s stunning 12th of June finds him in the mode of many of his best songs, picking up a conversation seemingly in the middle and finding the same affection and gratitude for the people in his life and his songs that characterized mentors of his like Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith. “I said before, and now the long time’s come, to wait, forget, and still remember some. To hold our heads above the laughing tongues falling from the faces of the mocking ones.”
  • Joan Shelley, “Bolt” – Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley put out one of her best records – and that’s a high bar – with this year’s The Spur. Full of songs that gave me something to chew on, with melodies and images I couldn’t shake. This one breaks my heart every time, an example of having the metaphor right in the title and still being surprising. “Haven’t you grown enough? Aren’t you old enough? Can’t you carry more than your heavy self? There’s no hiding, no lies, having two eyes to watch you all the time; see right through you.”
  • Alabaster dePlume, “Fucking Let Them” – Spoken word artist and saxophonest Alabaster dePlume found the perfect backing band in Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die (Branch with Chad Taylor, Jason Ajemian, and Lester St Louis) and they provide a ferocious accompaniment throughout Gold – Go Forward in the Courage of Your Love. “I am brazen like a baby. Like the stupid sun. And I go forward in the courage of your love.”
  • Cory Henry, “Something New” – I was lucky enough to see Henry and his Funk Apostles this summer touring his newest, extremely strong collection, Operation Funk. This is another dancefloor smash with a gorgeous, soaring vocal and his majestic keyboards. “‘We may not be young anymore, but the night is,’ this is what she said when she looked in my eyes. ‘Follow me, take my hand, let’s go up to a higher ground.'”
  • Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, “Nashville Mess Around” – Another instant classic dance song of a different stripe by another virtuoso who’s breaking out with better and better songwriting on every outing. Guitarist and songwriter Molly Tuttle killed me on her new one, Crooked Tree, featuring musical snapshots of different points in her life and career. The tune and interlaced guitar, fiddle, and banjo here are killer but I also live the sardonic smile she paints the lyrics with. “So all you pals and pilgrims and in-from-out-of-towners, we had a boom, now there’s no room, so don’t you hang around here. You’re out of luck, so don’t pick up when Nashville comes a-calling. You’d best go back to Fond du Lac and quit your honky tonking.”
  • SYD featuring Smino, “Right Track” – I didn’t love Syd’s Broken Hearts Club quite as much as I wanted to but there were a handful of undeniable songs that give me hope the rest of it will grow on me. A marvelous, seductive vocal and a finger snapping backing track with a charming feature verse from Smino. “Seems like we’re on the right track; keep it up, you keep me coming right back. You know I’m trying to wife that.”
  • Primer, “Feel The Way I Do” – Alyssa Midcalf’s Primer project released Incubator, a record of electronic pop using a lot of ’80s textures that normally turn me off but she doesn’t use them in a too-precious throwback way, she roughs them up and brings in other elements. I found the songs entrancing and the vocal delivery mesmerizing. The expansion toward the end of the song feels like earned catharsis, like the first sunny day after an endless gray week. “I’ve been living inside me my whole life. I can’t seem to fight it, I don’t know why. I tremble as it grows.”
  • Illogic, “Play to Win” – Illogic was the first rapper in Columbus I loved, that felt like he was part of a scene I knew and understood. I still pull out Celestial Clockwork regularly. His last couple of records find him going deeper into making his own beats and The Transition is an excellent, mature record where the tracks live up to the excellent producers he was working with when I first heard him and the songs gel, the record he only could have made with his wisdom and experience. I keep going back to it and finding something – or some things – new. “He wasn’t sorry for the moves made, just try’n’a get home, sliding shoots and climbing ladders was the strategy.”
  • Becca Stevens and Attacca Quartet, “45 Bucks” – Jazz singer and composer Becca Stevens has been expanding her sonic universe on the last few records, with her expansive breakthrough Wonderbloom, last year’s collaboration with the Secret Trio, and this year’s fantastic work with the Attacca Quartet who Anne and I were lucky enough to see at Big Ears this year. This revisiting of an older song of Stevens is a perfect example of their powers combining. The strings chasing and jousting her defiant vocals in a lyric that uses the same lines over and over, juxtaposing in a way that evokes a pantoum. “It must be hard for you to get up in the morning.”
  • Dedicated Men of Zion, “Rock My Soul” – I’ve always been a sucker for deep gospel, and North Carolina quartet Dedicated Men of Zion produced an example that blows me away with The Devil Don’t Like It. Adding to the power of those voices in concert is a band filled with Memphis all-stars including Al Gamble on organ, Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang on guitars, and a swinging, crunching rhythm section of Mark Edgar Stuart and George Sluppick. “If I get to Heaven, I’m gonna swing and shout. There’s gonna be nobody up there who’s going to turn me out.”
  • Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters, “Eurydice” – Asheville roots rock band Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters released their best album with this year’s sprawling The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and this ballad, brimming with slow-boil intensity, is a prime example of what they do so well – the steel guitar and accordion or harmonium running through the track like a river without undercutting the vocal. “Is that darkness in your dreams? My darling, I believe, it’s not loneliness you fear. It’s your own heart that keeps you here.”
  • Spiritualized, “Let It Bleed (For Iggy)” – Any new Spiritualized record is cause for rejoicing in my corner of the world. This song rising from a slow-burn ballad into a majestic explosion is a prime example of what Jason Pierce and his shifting collection of musicians do better than anyone in my lifetime. “I labored over this life for too long: there’s nothing to behold. I wanted it to be better for you. A minute down the road, I wanted it to go straight to your heart and say, ‘Darling, I was wrong.'”
  • Golomb, “Western Threshold” – I’ve watched Xenia Bleveans Holm (vocals and bass) and Hawken Holm (drums) grow up. Their parents, Dave and Melanie, are great friends and, between them, have given me some of my favorite musical experiences in this town, in bands like Ugly Stick, The Townsmen, Bigfoot, and Total Foxx. I was a big fan of Xenia’s earlier band, Cherry Chrome, but I adore this new power trio featuring Mickey Shuman (vocals and guitar). Their fantastic eponymous debut album reminds me of everything I loved about ’90s indie rock but with a fresh, contemporary spin, buried hooks I want to dig and uncover. “Hey, baby, it’s somewhere between late morning and early night. I’m in the western threshold, not another soul in sight. And I write to you.”
  • Rose Mercie, “Un château” – Paris-based band Rose Mercie’s record Kieres Agua got its hooks in me and hasn’t let go. This song is a nighttime rainstorm in the middle of a city, neon-splashed puddles and shadows like a Will Eisner comic strip in that intoxicating keyboard part and those guitar stabs.
  • Jenny Hval, “Cemetery of Splendour” – I’ve been a big fan of Jenny Hval for many years, anyone who’s ever read one of these lists has probably seen her name. Her last records have been growing in accessibility and ease without sacrificing any of the mystery, the sharp edges that drew me to her work in the first place. This almost torturously slow ballad with its suspended keyboard chords and rotating vocal, drums as subtle as a heartbeat before building to a complicated climax, is a key example of what I love so much about her work. “Now you go to the afterlife; you’ve heard good things about it but the embers are cooling and the spirits are just names plus one.”
  • Robert Glasper featuring Q-Tip and Esperanza Spalding, “Why We Speak” – I’ve liked all of keyboardist Robert Glasper’s Black Radio records, drawing the various streams of contemporary black music together and staking out a claim for the jazz he came up playing and still plays well. This song sets up a sinuous, sensual groove around Spalding and Q-Tip’s vocals in English, French and Spanish for something that would sound good in any lounge at 2 am. “To remember after all their sage disasters are done, se souvenir.”
  • Leikeli47, “LL Cool J” – Someone else I was slow to, but Leikeli47’s third record Shape Up got me immediately, especially this seductive, sparse single. “Boy, you got the type of shine you only find in a mine – I dug deep and worked hard just to make you mine.”
  • Bad Bunny, “Yo No Soy Celoso” – I liked the earlier Bad Bunny records but Un Verano Sin Ti hit me at exactly the right time, and its blend of other music in with the reggaeton and Latin trap that made his name feels perfectly calibrated. The hard acoustic guitar strum underpinning this track and the whistling give a lightness to it that rubs up against his weathered vocal in just the right way.
  • Rosalía, “MOTOMAMI” – I checked out Rosalía when I mentioned the singer-songwriter Roasli to my pal Mary at work and she thought I had the name wrong. So I was already primed for her best, most sprawling record to come out and it’s delightfully weird and diverse. I need more unabashed pop records taking these kinds of big swings in my life.
  • Nikki Lane, “Try Harder” – I liked Nikki Lane from her first record on – and still rave about seeing her at Twangfest six or seven years ago – but her collaboration with producer Josh Homme, Denim and Diamonds, makes the songs snap into sharper relief with the rhythm section amped up just slightly and her vocal nudged to the front of the mix. “One of these days you’re gonna wake up and find yourself wondering if you done right or should’ve done something else. It gets hard to believe you’re gonna find a way, but that’s the price you pay.”
  • Ceclie McLorin Salvant, “Moon Song” – Cecile McLorin Salvant has long been at the front of the pack of current jazz singers, with a keen interpretive gift. The last few records, she’s proving she’s also one of our best songwriters, and Ghost Song is another leap in that direction, with stunning accompaniment by Aaron Diehl on piano. “Let me write you a song and long to belong to you; write you a song from a distance. Let me love you like I love the moon.”
  • Ralph White, “Something About Dreaming” – Bad Livers helped redefine what I thought about roots music, but I hadn’t kept up with Ralph White’s music since leaving the band. This title track from one of the two terrific albums old friend Jerry David DeCicca produced on White this year holds that voice and banjo playing up to the light and makes every crack, every bit of weathering – every surprising stretch of a vowel – not only apparent but beautiful. “Things ain’t never gonna be the same and I just listen to the wind, the stars, and the rain. I listen to falling rain.”
  • Sharon Van Etten, “Home to Me” – Sharon Van Etten’s records keep getting richer, a reminder of how much life has to give you at every turn as long as you’re willing to put in the attention and you have the craft to express it. The rapturous slow crawl of this song and the intensity of its act of love makes it a standout for me on the great We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. “I take my time so you can say to me, ‘What makes it right is an unknown thing.'”
  • Earl Vallie, “A Beautiful Creature” – Earl Vallie was a good friend of mine back when he lived in Columbus. Then, I knew him mostly as a visual/installation artist. So it’s a beautiful thing to hear my old pal’s voice on this fully formed, stirring music. His record Ghost Approaches merges finely-observed workaday detail with high drama, given exquisite production from Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier who also plays drums with Joel T. Crocco rounding out the rhythm section. “Spending all my gold just painting palm trees red, then I spread my wings again. Grabbing what I seek to find from massive swarms of things I’ve left behind.”
  • Maisie Kappler, “Fit for a Queen” – A Columbus singer-songwriter I just stumbled onto this year, Kappler’s mix of the dramatic and the ephemeral is a rare gift, paired with cut-crystal melodies that keep me coming back. This memory of the artist’s grandmother struck me as soon as I heard it and I’m still drawn back, finding new things that resonate with my own memories of the grandmother I miss very much and things so specific to her experience I’m glad to be given that window into their relationship. “When I was younger, I asked my grandmother how she held onto her youth. She stared at her whiskey, then she answered ‘Vanity.’ Surely it must have been true.”
  • BAYLI, “Think of Drugs” – Brooklyn R&B singer BAYLI was one of my favorite discoveries this year, this glittering cri de coeur uses the creaminess of the production and the silky, stretching melody to enhance the pain of longing in the lyrics in a way I’m always a sucker for. “Breathe before I delete your number from my phone. Do you ever think of me like you think of drugs? Like you think when you think of drugs?”
  • Weyes Blood, “The Worst Is Done” – Weyes Blood has been broadening their approach and writing more accessible melodies for the last few years – I remember seeing a great show with David Banbury at Cafe Bourbon Street a few years ago that felt like a breakthrough – and the records keep getting stronger and more expansive, more about reckoning with the world. “Got kinda old; it happened to me quickly. Burned down the house waiting for someone to save me.”
  • Vieux Farka Touré and Khruangbin, “Savanne” – Farka Touré teamed up with rising instrumental lounge-rock band Khurangbin for a kaleidoscopic tribute to his father Ali, one of the true giants of Malian music that keeps everything good about his father’s work, every memorable part, without shackling it to an era or a style.
  • Willie Nelson, “Tower of Song” – Willie Nelson’s grappled with the Leonard Cohen songbook a few times over the years but there’s something beautiful about him taking on this mythopoetic look back now with sparse accompaniment and longtime foil Mickey Raphael’s harmonica right up front next to him. As I did with the monthly playlists, I tried to end this with a prayer. Thank you for listening or reading. “All the bridges are burning that we might have crossed, but I feel so close to everything that we lost. We’ll never have to lose it again.”
Best Of live music

Best of 2022: Live Music

A Weirdo From Memphis, Railgarten, Memphis

This was the year of irrational exuberance. In a better light, this year was full of excellent examples of not skipping shows. I saw about 160 shows across 11 cities in two countries at around 70 venues. Next year I’m looking to travel more carefully and pay some of this exuberance off instead of racking it up, get back down to my usual ~100 range; a little too often, I found myself burned out and exhausted, not quite enjoying every thing as much as usual.

But that exuberance did pay off more often than not. I saw some amazing shit this year, of all genres. Big touring acts I didn’t think I’d ever see, acts I had tickets for in early 2020 who finally go to play, and joyous, joyous crowds everywhere. And this year, I had a couple festival sets that might have been the best shows I saw all year – Compulsive Gamblers at Gonerfest, Scrunchies at Dirtnap – so I added blurbs on my favorite sets, grouped by festival. The sets on here, every damn one of them, made the hassle of being there as close to worth it as possible. Most of the time, they made it worth slogging through rain and snow, two airports, surly bartenders, bullshit security theater, and salved whatever slight wounds with an hour or more of transcendence, but the kind of transcendence that makes me closer with the other people there. That makes me love the world a little more.

Honk Wail and Moan at Dick’s Den

Similarly to my theatre recap, these highlights are only a small chunk of the story. I’m overjoyed to see most of the venues I love made it through to the other side of 2020-2021 emboldened and still swinging. While Dick’s Den only appears once on the list, it’s where I saw the most music – by my count, 29 shows – and had the best time overall. It takes its place in the firmament of Columbus culture, not just music, seriously but not too seriously. It’s still where you’re likely to see new projects get formed and old friendships renewed and hear some of the best music in the world.

Natalie’s consolidation to Grandview makes an amazing amount of sense; I’ll miss that little listening room that’s marginally closer to my house, but I think optimizing the two areas of the venue for different listening experiences is great, and they cast the widest net of booking in town, with Charlie Jackson’s legendary ear supplemented by bookers like Alec Wightman’s Zeppelin Productions and Bruce Nutt’s Crazy Mama’s booking – as I write these very words, I’m thinking about having dinner to the dulcet tones of the Colin Lazarski organ trio tonight, already have tickets to a Zeppelin booking in 2023, and am fondly remembering talking about Bruce Nutt and Natalie’s with a bass player in Memphis a few years ago.

From left, Matt Benz, Pete English, and Bob Starker of the Sovines, Natalie’s Grandview

The Ace of Cups reinvention is still tweaking the balance of dance parties and various genres of music, but the bones of the venue – most of the great bartenders are still involved, the sound has improved slightly, the patio’s been refurbished in subtle but very good ways – and it feels (from the outside) healthier than it’s been in a while. A side effect of the new ownership and promoters is a few touring bands who often played Ace out of loyalty to Aleks or Marcy are now in rooms that are a little better sized for their actual Columbus draw, the Sweet Knives show at Bourbon Street and Jon Spencer and the Hitmakers at Rumba were more exciting in mostly full rooms than the last (also great) half-full crowds they played to at Ace. More exciting shows for bands with slightly smaller draws and freeing Ace up for the 300ish people shows it does better than anywhere else in town.

Rumba, in general, upped its quotient of rock and roll while still making time for the Americana and singer-songwriters it has always served better than any other standing room in town. Bourbon Street is finding its own equilibrium, and I had more great, leaving-later-than-I-planned nights there than in the last five years, which makes my heart sing about the bar that used to be my second living room. These are in chronological order and in Columbus unless otherwise stated. All photographs have only me to blame.

Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Denny deBorja from the 400 Unit, Palace Theater
  • Rebirth Brass Band with Largemouth Brass Band (Rumba Cafe) – This steaming hot show on a bitter January night also marked my return to social life after my second bout with COVID. Largemouth Brass Band continues to impress me with every outing, playing songs off their very fine 2021 record with wit and charm. And Rebirth Brass Band reminded all of us why they’re one of the finest American institutions, cross-cutting Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” with James Brown’s “Talkin’ Loud and Saying Nothing,” Fats Domino with Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” in a righteous dance party that’s hard to rival.
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with Adia Victoria (Palace Theater) – Delayed a few weeks because of the Omicron surge; this has a special place in my heart because it was the last show Anne and I saw in town with our dear friends Heather and Adam before they moved to New York. But beyond that, the music was stunning – Adia Victoria turned the stunning, sparse, blues-soaked narratives from her A Southern Gothic record into smoldering live incantations, spinning them like a prism to the light of the audience. And I finally got to see Isbell do songs from Reunions, maybe his best record yet (I’m going to get tired of saying that eventually), and his covers record paying tribute to the state he spent so much time in, Georgia Blue, and continued to show his powers as a bandleader, and the stunning power and subtlety of the 400 Unit, as good a band as is working today. From the opener, “What Have I Done To Help,” those songs served as a balm and a reminder to be less hermetic, to engage, and to try. A favorite moment: doing one of my favorite songs from Reunions, “Only Children,” an elegy to a similarly talented friend who never quite broke through, with a nuanced delivery, conversational, weaving guitars providing texture underneath and then, after he delivers that heartbreaking bridge “‘Heaven’s wasted on the dead,’ that’s what your Mama said, as the hearse was idling in the parking lot. She said you thought the world of me, and you were glad to see they finally let me be an astronaut,” and a rocket launch of a guitar solo opens up the world of the song and underscores that pain of a dream denied and the beauty of that time you have with those people. And there were probably a dozen of those moments in this front-to-back stellar concert.
  • Bettye Lavette (Thirty One West) – One of the quintessential American voices, R&B royalty, taking us all to church and the juke-joint at the same time in a fantastic old ballroom. More than worth the 45 minutes out to Newark. With a crack band, Lavette traversed a set heavy on her great tribute to other songs made famous by women, Blackbirds (my favorite being an audacious, perfect “Drinking Again”), her gorgeously raunchy mission statement “Take Me As I Am,” a slow, acid pour of John Prine’s “Souvenirs,” and so much more.
Chad Taylor and Jaimie Branch of Fly or Die, Wexner Center
  • Lilly Hiatt (Rumba Cafe) – I’d been waiting for this since it was originally on the books in March of 2020, so I was ecstatic when this third reschedule finally happened – and in the meantime, Hiatt had put out two excellent records. She and her four-piece band hit my favorite moments off the new ones: a tribute to her sister, “Rae,” with a loose-limbed propulsive swing, the hard-won anthem “Walking Proof,” and the mournful chime of “Candy Lunch,” making the songs shine and live and emphasizing what a stellar bandleader she’s grown into since she came on my radar. A crash course in the power and necessity of songs.
  • Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die (Wexner Center for the Arts) – One of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done and an artist I’ve spoken about rapturously, drawn in by the first few notes of the first Fly or Die record, turned to a full-on drooling fan with the first time I saw her live at Nublu during Winter Jazzfest, and mind was blown, all expectations exceeded bt this fiery show. This rose into the ranks of the best things I’ve ever seen at the Wexner Center – the venue that turned me onto so much of the music I love so much. And what a person we lost, following up that conversation with a big, sweaty hug after the set and a boisterous “What’s up, Rick?” when I saw her a little later.
  • Garbage Greek with The Harlequins and Shark (Rumba Cafe) – I liked Garbage Greek since I first heard them, but they didn’t move out of the shadow of Lee Mason and Patrick Koch’s earlier band Comrade Question until the first time Anne and I saw the three-piece – with powerful drummer Jason Winner’s pummeling swing highlighted – as shows started to resume last year and they’ve grown into my favorite new band. This record release show for their breakthrough record Quality Garbage not only knocked me against a wall, but it also turned me onto two of my favorite new bands, doom-surf-garage three-piece Shark and the infectious hooks and sharp edges of Cincinnati’s Harlequins.
  • Johnny Rebel Memorial Show (Natalie’s Grandview) – It depresses me that I can’t include any Th’ Flyin’ Saucers on my parting gifts playlists because they’re not on the streaming service I use – and a reminder of the peril of streaming in general, especially as it makes us think the plethora of options available is all that’s available. Because of that band, and singer-guitarist Johnny Rebel (Sean Groves), a fellow West Sider, always with a kind word and some great conversation, and one of the most ferocious bandleaders I was ever lucky enough to see. This tribute show, put together by his (and my) friends Jeff Eaton and Jeff Passifume, brought together his friends, inspirations, and those influenced by him in the scene, including my pals The Sovines (playing these songs together for the first time since Twangfest six or so years ago), local blues legend Terry Davidson, an ad hoc band with a bunch of old Flyin’ Saucers and Passifume that blew my hair back, and a lot of hugs and great stories. A reminder of the beauty of community in this town and that the best memorial always turns into a dance party.
Junius Paul and Makaya McCraven, Mershon Auditorium, Wexner Center for the Arts
  • Makaya McCraven (Wexner Center for the Arts) – McCraven’s records taking the time-honored postmodern practice of cutting up improvisations to form compositions have a sense of repetition that recalls modern composition and hip-hop/dance club music, but my favorite aspects come with the love he has for the improvisation as improvisation and the way the final version of the piece – often created in the studio – continues to evolve live with other players. This titanic performance, laying the groundwork in my mind for In These Times, with powerful playing by Greg Ward’s alto, especially everyone working as one mind, transported me.
  • Anais Mitchell (Brooklyn Made, NYC) – One of my favorite songwriters for years – a set of hers at Rumba Cafe about a decade ago wasn’t the first time I saw her, but still stands out in blazing memory. And I love Hadestown as much as anyone – look at my theatre list from last year and I think my records list from 2010 – but I’ve been a fan since hearing “Cosmic American” from an MP3 blog and immediately saying, “I need to hear more of this voice.” Promoting her stellar eponymous record – I think “Felix Song (On Your Way)” is my most played song of the year, with “Bright Star” and “Brooklyn Bridge” right behind – with a tight four-piece band, back in her old stomping grounds since relocating to her home town in Vermont, this was a reminder of everything I love about a songwriter, that shifting sense of character and setting that’s so finely chiseled and crafted out of hearts and memory, with that voice like hearing the stars sing. Direct communication but not simple.
  • Kris Davis Quintet (Village Vanguard, NYC) – Among my favorite piano players, and a core part of how much I loved the last Winter Jazzfest with her stellar closing set of Diatom Ribbons, so it felt appropriate seeing her at my first trip back to the Vanguard. She assembled a killer band, with a crunching, subtle rhythm section of Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and Trevor Dunn on bass, Val Jeanty on turntables and electronics, and Julian Lage on guitar, and – appropriate to the hallowed room – grappled with the history of the music, with mesmerizing takes on Eric Dolphy’s tribute to Monk, “Hat and Beard,” Roland Shannon Jackson’s “Alice in the Congo,” and a dazzling read of Geri Allen’s “A Dancer” along with her own stellar compositions.
  • James McMurtry (Skully’s, NYC) – A case study of someone who gets better and better, McMurtry came through touring his magical last record, Horses and the Hounds, for the first show I’d been lucky enough to link up with in about 10 years, and the mix of storytelling and dancehall joy was just right. A tight four-piece band adding color and muscle, highlighting his weathered voice on classics and newer material like the beauty-of-remembering, tumbling narrative “Canola Fields” and the potent anthem of acceptance in the face of a world you know too well, “If It Don’t Bleed,” to an audience that felt brought together by those stories.
Don Was All-Star Revue, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
  • Roland Johnson (Whiskey Ring, St Louis) – There was scarcely a moment I didn’t love about my return to St Louis, culminating in John Wendland’s wedding to Jenny Heim. For the bachelor party, organized and ring-led by Wendland’s best friend and fellow DJ and music writer Roy Kasten, Kasten outdid himself by bringing one of the last of the great St Louis soul singers, Roland Johnson, to the back patio of one of my favorite bars of all time, the Whiskey Ring. A combination of beautiful originals and classic covers like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Take Me to the River,” Johnson’s supple voice took us to church and to the stars. The after-party at the Royale with DJ Landy Dandy was also spectacular – see her if she’s spinning when you’re in the STL – but that first brush was hard to beat.
  • Don Was All-Star Revue with Alejandro Escovedo (Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit) – I feel confident that if the Bikini Kill concert we were in Detroit for the weekend of Anne’s birthday hadn’t been postponed again, I feel confident it would have made this list. As it stands, I was extra glad I made the case for going out a day early for DIA’s Festival of Colors. Finally getting to see one of Detroit native Don Was’s all-star groups paying tribute to Michigan rock and roll innovator Iggy Pop, with members of Was (Not Was), Detroit Cobras, Dirtbombs, and so many others, was the best kind of this sort of tribute show. Alejandro Escovedo’s warm opening act – and appearance at the finale of the tribute trading verses on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with Mick Collins – was the icing on the cake.
  • Death Valley Girls with LA Witch (Natalie’s Grandview) – Natalie’s has long had some rough and rowdy rock and roll as part of their musical diet, but it became a little more prominent in 2022, and my favorite example was this stellar double bill with two bands I’ve liked playing at the top of their games. The organ-drenched swing of Death Valley Girls complimented and contrasted the barbed-wire shoegaze power trio of LA Witch in a room that made both of them sound exactly as good as I’ve always thought they could.
Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble, Lincoln Theater
  • Reckless Ops (Vanderelli Room)/Dirty Dozen Brass Band (Scioto Mile)/Sweet Knives (Cafe Bourbon Street)/Honk Wail and Moan (Dick’s Den) – These “a night in the life of” entries used to be a staple of these year-end lists but I think I’ve gotten away from them. This year granted me such a prime example I couldn’t not talk about it. As Anne was out for her usual girls’ weekend, and the couple of compatriots I’d roped in for part of this had to bail, I found myself with no one else’s schedule to account for and a determination to make as much of the plethora of good options as I possibly good. Starting with Franklinton Friday, what’s become one of my favorite traditions in town – and take advantage of it soon because it’ll go the way of Gallery Hop before we know it – I caught my pal Billy Heingartner’s new band, where he plays drums with longtime collaborator, and one of my favorite songwriters in town, Bill Wagner, Reckless Ops. Duane Hart’s thick, hardcore-tinged bass lines and Heingartner’s drums gave a crunch and a stoner-rock menace to some of Wagner’s finest and most delicate songs (I think a few were older Bygones songs, some were new, but I wouldn’t swear to it). From there, I walked across the bridge to see another installment in the best Rhythm on the River lineup in recent memory (though it felt strangled by the lack of a beer vendor, limited food trucks), a rousing set by American institution Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I headed to my old stomping grounds, Cafe Bourbon Street, for a few great songs by the D-Rays who have evolved into a more nuanced rock band over the years, and then a delightful reunion of old friends to watch the best Sweet Knives set I’ve ever seen, from a band I’ve never seen be less than great. The addition of a keyboard player and backing singer added additional weight and texture to some of Alicja Trout’s finest songs without blunting their spiky impact. I wanted to see my favorite Columbus band, Dana, but I had a limited amount of energy and wanted to get to Dick’s for Honk Wail and Moan. HWM is one of my favorite institutions; a band I saw (I think at the Jazz and Rib Fest, but it could’ve been something else outside) around the same time I first saw Scrawl, Haynes Boys, and TJSA, but so together and so different from what I was expecting I didn’t think they were local at first. I was lucky to catch the second of three sets, going through a series of great Brian Casey (RIP) compositions, with discursive and enlightening introductions by Steve Perakis and a series of guest stars, including singer Michelle Ishida. It was a beautiful tribute to one of our great composers and a tribute to the friendships that feed the soil of the music I love so much here.
  • Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble (Wexner Center/CAPA) – Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble ties together dance, hard funk, free jazz, and contemporary gospel harmonies into a magical tribute to being alive, even when it’s complicated; to trying, even when it’s fucked up. A powerful band that takes on today with all its challenges, all its large and small devastations.
The Comet is Coming, Bowery Ballroom, NYC
  • The Comet is Coming (Bowery Ballroom, NYC) – I’d already been lucky enough to see this band a few years ago – but after a blistering set by Shabaka Hutchings’ other bands, Sons of Kemet, I wasn’t going to miss this on our second trip to NYC in 2022. And it exceeded expectations by a mile – a surging dance party in Bowery Ballroom, after a terrific meal with good friends Heather and Adam and a play that also made my year-end list, Anne and I danced till we were sore and trekked up to East Village standby 2A to talk about it for another two hours (in the eye of the crushing hurricane of young people).
  • Los Carnash (Sonido Necrotico, Mexico City) – On a great Mexico City trip, we saw some wonderful music that just happened to appear – a dulcimer-led trio in La Opera, a mariachi band singing Dean Martin on the way back from Teotihuacan, a great New Orleans trad jazz group at Zinco Jazz Club – but the one thing we sought out, a garage-punk evening led by Sonido Necrotico, was an indelible memory. We couldn’t even get in the performance space. Los Carnash (90% sure, but based on the process of deduction) delivered a catchy, crunching set that shook Anne and me watching downstairs from the bar. A reminder of the power of youthful rock and roll.
  • Jon Langford and the Bright Shiners (Hogan House) – I saw a few other very good things after this (including running into the gracious Hogan House hosts PJ and Abbie twice more in the same week), but this new project from Jon Langford had such a sense of mischief and communal joy, stringing together songs from a variety of Langford’s projects from the Mekons (a magical, wistful “The Last Dance” and an appropriately righteous “Memphis, Egypt, Etc Etc”) to brand new songs in lockdown, and a couple perfectly chosen covers from Grant McLennan, The Kinks, and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. There was a sense of nostalgia – that to live is to miss people, but also a deep sense of being grateful and making each moment matter.
Nubya Garcia, Mill and Mine, Big Ears Festival, Knoxville
  • Big Ears Festival (Knoxville)
    • Tift Merritt with Eric Heywood – A singer-songwriter who’s given me as many songs I’ve loved in the last twenty years as literally anyone with her partner who redefined how I thought about the pedal steel guitar, doing a duo set in the most intimate venue of Big Ears, drinking a whiskey I’ve never seen before (thank you, bartenders, at Jig and Reel) and weeping, it was so beautiful.
    • Sons of Kemet – The fact that I could walk from that set above, across a set of railroad tracks, and go straight into this set, which stands among the best dance parties I’ve ever been to, justifies my getting to Big Ears every year I can make the money and time work out.
    • Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Finally got to see someone I’ve wanted to for a while, and chief aTunde more than delivered. A set that made me move and love the world and also reconsider a lot of long-standing preconceptions about the audience-performer dynamic.
    • Nubya Garcia – Someone else whose records I’ve loved for a while and is on the cusp of breaking through to a larger audience, playing a set with just a lean four-piece band, organ, bass, drums, and the purest saxophone tone I’ve heard in a very long time.
    • Andrew Cyrille and Marc Ribot – The first meeting of two of the instrumentalists who helped form the way I think about their respective instruments took on the whole of American music and sent me into the night with stars in my eyes.
Scrunchies, High Noon Saloon, Dirtnap Festival, Madison
  • Dirtnap Record Anniversary (Madison)
    • Scrunchies – If this set had been a standalone show, it would have been one of the two or three best rock and roll sets I saw all year. This band came more into their own with this year’s sophomore record Feral Beach, and live, they’re a force to be reckoned with and a powerful reminder of how much Dirtnap Records is still giving us.. If they come to your town, do not miss.
    • Fox Face – I’d been waiting to see this Milwaukee band since falling in love with their record End of Man in 2021, and they exceeded those sky-high expectations live.
    • Sugar Stems – I’ve been proselytizing for Sugar Stems’ blend of ’60s girl group and vintage punk since they blew me away at Gonerfest several years ago, and I had to buy everything. Hearing these songs again in this reunion set felt like the last call on the best Saturday night of your life, even though it was early afternoon.
    • Bad Sports – I love anything Orville Neeley, and this Bad Spots set was a perfect example, a quintessential example of what I’m looking for in a rock band.
    • River City Tanlines – Probably my favorite band from one of my favorite songwriters, Alicja Trout; this power trio left a pile of smoldering rubble in their wake. It had been too. goddamn. long.
Dana, Nelsonville Music Festival
  • Nelsonville Music Festival (Nelsonville)
    • SG Goodman – One of my favorite newish singer-songwriters, I was already enamored with her 2022 album Teeth Marks, and seeing her live with a perfect four-piece band reaffirmed everything I love about that genre and the specificity of these songs, making every detail ring out into the woods.
    • Tre Burt – With my recently-jacked-up ankle and wrist, I only made my way down into the semi-hidden wooded part of the new NMF site once, but I picked the right set. Tre Burt’s stunning solo set came the closest of anything I saw all weekend to make the hassles and first-year growing pains of the new site into conjuring the magic so many of my friends who love the festival so much talk about.
    • Dana – My favorite Columbus band proving they can own a big outdoor stage just as readily as a late-night club; their songs have the heft and power to translate.
Willie Phoenix, Hot Times Festival
  • Hot Times Festival
    • Willie Phoenix – I was already blown away by Damon Locks before Anne and I walked down to see the towering figure of Columbus guitar rock, dominating easily the best of the longer-running outdoor festivals. Still in great voice, still an unmistakable guitar tone.
    • The Four Mints – Columbus R&B loyalty with a fuller band behind them than we’re usually lucky enough to get and a beautiful multigenerational crowd soaking it in. This summed up everything I love about Hot Times and much of what I love about Columbus.
South Filthy, The Lamplighter, Memphis
  • Gonerfest (Memphis)
    • Compulsive Gamblers – Similar to Scrunchies, if this had been a standalone show, it’d be one of the couple best shows I saw all year. I never thought I’d get a full band version of this early Greg Cartwright/Jack Yarber collaboration, and while I loved the stripped-down quartet version that came through the Beachland, this almost made my heart burst out of my chest. The deep, warm sadness and empathic darkness of “Two Thieves” through the swaggering, grim boogie of “Rock and Roll Nurse” made me feel like I could fly.
    • King Khan and the BOlivians – A testament to the power of the community that’s grown up around Gonerfest, King Khan was forced to go alone as BBQ was ill, so he drafted old friends Greg and Jack Oblivian for a (probably) once in a lifetime set of their mutual songs.
    • South Filthy* – Asterisked because it’s not actually part of the festival but a side day show at the Lamplighter, but I don’t think it would have happened were Walter Daniels not drafted for the Compulsive Gamblers show. A Texas/Memphis supergroup who put out a couple of my favorite filthy roots rock records kicking up sparkling dust in the back room of one of my favorite bars in the world.
    • A Weirdo From Memphis – With members of his Unapologetic crew, AWFM owned the stage, the rigging above, and the sign overlooking us with a sprawling set of big hooks, righteously angry shouts, and dense, hypnotic arrangements.
    • Sick Thoughts – A classic. If you asked me what “Goner” music sounds like, I’d point to Sick Thoughts, but this year – with their new record and this killing victory lap of a set – they hit a new level full of songs I couldn’t get out of my head, played with extra fire.
Best Of visual art

Best of 2022: Visual Art

I repeatedly say that these year-end lists are foremost an exercise in gratitude, and, as I said in 2021, visual art was the thing I missed most during the lockdown and one of the great boons of the travel we did this year. Visual art slows me down, at least a little, and reminds me of the Mary Oliver line, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” It’s become one of the main tenets of my art diet, and something dazzled me everywhere I turned.

All of these are in chronological order and in Columbus unless otherwise noted. All photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.

Faith Ringgold, New Museum, NYC

Diane Fox, Unnatural History (Red Gallery, Knoxville) – The return to Big Ears was the indisputable highlight of my musical calendar (Winter Jazzfest was canceled due to the surge, Gonerfest returned in late 2021) and I was overjoyed to see an enhanced visual art element, both in official venues (some really strong work in my hotel lobby) and at other spots around downtown and Old City Knoxville. My favorite was at the Red Gallery along Jackson Avenue. Diane Fox takes photographs of dioramas in natural history museums to create a look at how we frame anthropological history and our relationships to animals over the years that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Various Artists, Black Life As Subject Matter II (Riffe Center Gallery) – The Ohio Arts Council gallery in the Riffe Center is one of Columbus’s most underrated gems and early May’s group show, curated by Willis “Bing” Davis and produced/circulated by Ebonnia Gallery was a kaleidoscopic work at not just black art but the way white America and the “mainstream” art world have given their lives a fair shake, and pointing at ways a more equitable and sane narrative is possible. And the opening had a warmer, more community oriented feeling than art openings almost ever do, aided by music by Derek Dicenzo on bass and Chris Brown on piano.

Terry Adkins, Terry Adkins (Paula Cooper Gallery, NYC) – This first retrospective of artist Terry Adkins since Adkins passed away in 2014 gave me a brilliant jolt of energy and shamed me for not knowing this artist’s work first. Sculptures and videos actively reshaping history and the world around Adkins.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, MoMA, NYC

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, World Unbound (MoMA, NYC) – Another artist I sadly didn’t know anything about and a breath of fresh air, the kind of show MoMA’s scholarship really shines with. This late artist (died in 2014) from Cote d’Ivoire, tried to summarize and preserve every piece of information about the known universe, including creating his own alphabet. It’s a magic-drenched tribute to the power and beauty of observation, of looking as deeply as you can.

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio (MoMA, NYC) – Another exhibition that uses MoMA’s scholarship to its fullest and a rare new look at perennial MoMA artist Matisse by assembling the pieces Matisse painted in his masterwork The Red Studio. It’s another tribute to seeing, to really understanding, to collecting the things that help feed our own art and keep them close.

Faith Ringgold, American People (New Museum, NYC) – Probably my favorite show of the entire year. I knew Ringgold’s work and I’d seen what I thought was a pretty strong cross section over the years but this cornucopia of her potent, dazzling work, recontextualizing and re-visioning American history was so beautiful and  such a punch in the gut that I did the full court press to get Anne to see it on a later day of our trip and so saw it twice, which has only happened once or twice before in 20 years of going to New York on relatively brief trips.

Cameron Granger, No Place Gallery

Clarence Heyward, Unseen (CAM, Raleigh) – There’s always something at CAM that turns me sideways, even when we’ve only been in Raleigh for a few hours I go out of my way to make a trip. Clarence Heyward’s portraits looked at his family, what being a black man and having expectations of filling those roles of protector and provider, in the face of lockdown and the high-attention murder of George Floyd as burning reminders of inequity and cruelty that have always been there. The expression on his daughter’s face in more than one of these still haunts me.

Various Artists, Ain’t I A Woman? (Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison) – My first trip to Madison, Wisconsin, since college was delightful front-to-back with a million great dive bars and a killer show commemorating punk label Dirtnap Records’ 20th anniversary. Their Museum of Contemporary Art provided a beautiful stop in the middle of the day with this group show, part of their Wisconsin Triennial, which took its title from the Sojourner Truth quote used as a bell hooks book title. Curated by Fatima Laster, this introduced me to so many great artists I didn’t already know.

Various Artists, Portal For(e) the Ephemeral Passage (Wexner Center for the Arts) – jaamil olawale kosoko was one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done, in advance of his poetic dance peace Séancers, and his curatorial work on this piece, bringing together artists whose work I knew well like nora chipaumire and Keioui Keijaun Thomas with those I didn’t know at all, like Jasmine Murrell, tied together with kosoko’s powerful installation at the end, in one of the most satisfying overall exhibits I took in this year.

Cameron Granger, Heavy As Heaven (No Place Gallery) – No Place Gallery had a great year, building on a streak of great years. I’m sure I missed a couple of exhibits over the course of the year, but anytime my schedule lined up with their open hours, I was there, and it always paid dividends. My favorite thing I saw in that space – I’m not alone – and if I were doing more of a ranking, one of my three or four favorite things all year, was this excavation of Granger’s own past and the wider world – the frame of a small house inside the gallery leading to a devastating short film but also with texts lying nearby and a separate film specifically about gentrification in the gallery’s side room. I think I snuck in to see this three times before it closed, and it broke my heart and uplifted me every time.

Amina Ross and Lola Ayisha Ogbara, The Luminary, St Louis

Various Artist, Split My Sides (The Luminary, St Louis) – It felt really good getting back to St Louis this year for the joyous occasion of my good friend John Wendland’s wedding and it did my heart good to see my favorite art space – in a town full of a lot of my favorite art – The Luminary is still holding it down on Cherokee Street. Amina Ross and Lola Ayisha Ogbara delve deep into black trans and feminine experience with a variety of mixed media work that don’t make anything obvious, work that’s visceral and gripping but that rewards further meditation. That huge Ross installation/film nagged at me for days.

Gala Porras-Kim, Correspondences Toward the Living Object (Contemporary Art Museum, St Louis) – Gala Porras-Kim’s elegantly wielded daggers turn on the problematic process of museum collections of sacred or beloved artifacts avoids easy answers for layers of complication upon complication, in a way that uses and benefits from the amount of space and the curatorial structure of a museum exhibit instead of some other gallery spaces.

Julie Mehretu, Cleveland Museum of Art

Various Artists, Front 2022 Triennial (Various Spaces, Cleveland) – I loved the earlier iteration of Cleveland’s multi-venue Front Triennial and was a little afraid the pandemic would have been its death knell but it returned strong in 2022 and the sampling Anne and I did, on a quicker than usual trip centered around a great Compulsive Gamblers reunion show at the Beachland gave me Renee Green’s work interspersed with other artists at MOCA, Julie Mehretu’s architectural explosive drawings in direct dialogue with the CMA collection, SPACES’ international work in Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows and so much more.

Various Artists, New York 1962-64 (Jewish Museum, NYC) – I’m a huge fan of this transitional period of post-war modernism and the Jewish Museum always does a great job of zooming in. In this case, they simultaneously shone a light on a window where New York was at the very center of the art world but also on Alan Solomon’s tenure as director, helping shape the Jewish Museum into the powerhouse of contemporary art it is today. A moving reminder of how much community matters and how one person can shift a narrative, can change the course of time.

Danielle McKinney, Marianne Boesky Gallery, NYC

Lorna Simpson, 1985-92 (Hauser and Wirth, NYC) – I thought I knew photographer Lorna Simpson’s work pretty well but this deep dive into her early work was revelatory. The way she looks at masks from the inside, from hair, from the way we invent ourselves and, in particular, how black feminine identity gets shaped was exactly the kind of stab in the heart I needed. Powerful, every-more-relevant work.

Danielle McKinney, Golden Hour (Marianne Boesky Gallery, NYC) – McKinney’s work made me think about portraiture in a different way, looking at black women in quiet, intimate moments but undercutting the thought that it’s natural, reminding me that everything in art comes through layers of thought and intention, in some cases directly – like placing one figure under Matisse’s The Dance – and in others with subtler hints at patterning and shapes. The brush strokes hint at a throb, electricity going through everything and illuminating the world.

Hank Willis Thomas, Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC

Hank Willis Thomas, Everything We See Hides Another Thing (Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC) – I’ve been a sucker for the images that hide and reveal at the same time – I read Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another” as a teenager – for a long time, and Thomas does that beautifully as well as engaging with technology in a way I don’t think I’d ever quite scene, engaging with cell phone photographs to expose pain and turmoil – and hope – underneath placid, accepted reality, almost banality, of test patterns and color fields.

Tania Pérez Córdova, Generalización (Museo Tamayo, Mexico City) – I loved Mexico City so much it’s almost impossible to pick a single favorite moment, but the Tamayo, one of the best contemporary art museums – from layout to curation to the building itself – I’ve ever been to, and the solo morning I spent there, is high on the list. I felt the vibration of Córdova’s work almost immediately and realized I’d first encountered the Mexico City-born artist at the MCA Chicago about six years ago. This larger retrospective about changing our perceptions of the world – melting down musical instruments and reconstructing them, melting ice in concrete blocks with the molds of people’s faces like death masks… as powerful and poetic a voice as I can think of.

Carlos Motta, Your Monsters, Our Idols (Wexner Center for the Arts) – I knew Motta’s work a little, but the panoply of visions with this strong, surging voice at the top of the Wex ramps killed me. Linking body horror and S&M with liberation and claiming space for oneself and always in a way that was beautiful, no matter how unsettling.

Katie Forbes, Documenting a Movement (Bridge Gallery) – Katie Forbes’ work around the Black Lives Matter protests is a testament to putting in the time and bringing her craft to something that’s important. Her willingness to be vulnerable and be on the ground – some of the photos, like a police officer pepper spraying someone whose hands are up, are uncomfortably close – and her empathy, the desire to know the people here without salaciousness, is an astonishing gift to this town.

Tania Pérez Córdova, Museo Tamayo, Mexico City
Best Of theatre

Best of 2022: Theater/Opera/Dance

Cast from the Public Theater’s Fat Ham by James Ijames, photo by Joan Marcus

It felt this year – and this is not just me saying it, I had this conversation with actors, with artistic directors, with people in line at the bar – that theatre was back in a way we didn’t quite see in 2021. And for what’s become my favorite art form, that was a balm to my soul I couldn’t quite quantify.

I made it to 52 shows this year. In addition to Columbus, Anne and I saw quite good theater in St Louis (a terrific version of Assassins), Madison (the really fun Temptations jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud) that didn’t quite make the list for me this year and stuff in New York that did, along with a couple NYC shows that had their hearts and minds in the right place but just didn’t land like I would have liked (a version of Company with a show-stopping lead performance by Katrina Lenk and a great comedic cast but was too uneven otherwise, and a 1776 with a stunning premise of having the founding fathers played by a cast without any cis men, but didn’t do anything with that premise).

It was a joy seeing Available Light back in a big way with a powerful shot across the bow in an exemplary performance of Jen Silverman’s Witch. CATCO built on their good work with Mr. Burns with my two favorite productions of the year, versions of School Girls and Indecent I have a hard time imagining being bettered. eMBer Women’s Theatre did a version of Margaret Edson’s W;t with a jaw-dropping performance by Sue Wismar at its heart that just wrecked me and made Anne say, “That’s the first great theater I’ve seen since we started going again.” Short North Stage – in addition to what was placed on this list – also had a production that turned me around on a show I never really liked Little Shop of Horrors, and one that re-invested me in a show I thought I was done with, Spring Awakening. The bench of choices to pick from was deep this year.

And these were the best of the best for me – the shows that made me want to grab a martini and talk about for two hours afterward (Sardi’s didn’t exactly make us use the elevator after Topdog/Underdog, but it was damn close) or hug whoever was near me. That lit me up and reminded me why I keep doing this.

But that’s not the whole story of the ecosystem. I want to call attention to the great work that MadLab and Evolution are doing: both of these companies take chances on plays no one else is and shine a light on voices that haven’t had many productions at the level of professionalism and care they both always bring to the table. Evolution did the almost unthinkable and brought a brand new musical to life.

For me, the finished products were mixed bags for both companies but you don’t find gems without taking the kind of bold risks they do. And also MadLab and Joe Bishara’s Abbey Theater (who host Evolution along with Original Production Theater, Stage Right, the Columbus Black Theatre Festival, etc) providing space and logistical support to other companies in a world where the rent’s too damn high and locations are thin on the ground for the needs of smaller troupes. They’re doing their part to nurture new, bold work. These are in chronological order and in Columbus unless otherwise stated. Photos are all taken from the theater’s websites or were provided by the production company for publicity purposes.

Sermontee Brown, Shauna Marie and Jacinda Forbes from School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, presented by CATCO. Photo by Terry Gilliam
  • School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh; directed by Shanelle Marie (CATCO) – I’d read Bioh’s pitch-perfect dissection of the cruelties people inflict on each other, through the specific lens of a girls’ boarding school in Ghana, and seen the streaming version of Chicago’s Goodman during lockdown but the production of this still hit me like every beat was brand new. I said, “In twenty-five years of regularly seeing theater, and a lifetime of living in Columbus, this is one of the ten best things I’ve ever seen on a stage here. It made me laugh myself hoarse and have to take my glasses off to wipe away tears,” when I reviewed it for Columbus Underground.
  • Fellow Travelers by Gregory Spears (composer) and Greg Pierce (libretto), based on the novel by Thomas Mallon; directed by Bruno Baker (Opera Columbus) – I wrote a preview for this stunning show which premiered in Cincinnati in 2016, a dark look at the HUAC-motivated purge of homosexuals from US government ranks centered around an incendiary performance from baritone Carl DuPont. I wrote about it for Columbus Underground.
  • W;t by Margaret Edson; directed by Michelle Batt (eMBer Women’s Theatre) – This was just breathtaking, a fantastic play that not only holds up but gains new resonance as it feels like anti-intellectualism and disparaging of women’s autonomy gain new, ugly footholds. I said, “Wit is a play that still elicits huge laughs – proven the night I went – and keeps its power to devastate, a prime example of the play as a magician who tells you the trick at the outset, then dazzles you with it anyway”, in my review for Columbus Underground.
  • Fat Ham by James Ijames; directed by Saheem Ali (Public Theater and National Black Theater, NYC) – I’ve been a fan of James Ijames’s’s heavily poetic language and incisive looks at the human condition since Available Light included a work of his in the 2017 Next Stage Initiative – but this year’s Fat Ham was the first piece of his that tied all the threads together and exceeded its potential. A riff on Hamlet set in the deep South, following a gay man, Juicy (Marcel Spears in a masterful performance), as he tries to navigate a bad family situation and relationships he keeps fucking up, with humor and fire. The moment when I realized Calvin Leon Smith’s sharply drawn Larry wasn’t Laertes he was Ophelia almost knocked me out of my chair and the concluding fourth wall shattering “If it’s all right with you, we decide to live,” that could have been so cheesy felt like the only truth I needed. One of the best new plays I’ve seen in many, many years.
  • The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder; directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Lincoln Center Theater, NYC) – I’d read and enjoyed this Thornton WIlder, but I’m not sure I’d ever seen it. Anne’s enthusiasm for the work – and my curiosity about what Lileana Blain-Cruz, whose work on Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World blew me away a few years ago, would do with it – made this our first trip back to Lincoln Center since the pandemic started and it was a dizzying, almost-too-appropriate take on how you live in the face of an apocalypse. A surreal apocalypse but a reminder that the world, especially in times of crisis, is always surreal. Puppet mammoths and hordes of barbarians tromp through a well-appointed home, with an astonishing performance from Gabby Beans as Sabina at the center of it.
Ricardo Jones, William Tyson, and Wilma Hatton in King Hedley II. Photo by Jabari Johnson
  • Voice of the Net by Jeremy Llorence; directed by Joe Bishara (Original Productions Theater, presented at the Abbey Theatre of Dublin) – Science fiction is hard to adapt on the stage; so are mysteries. So it was an extra delight to see this world premiere cyberpunk/techno-thriller play handle literary tropes I would have thought un-adaptable with stiletto grace. A credit to both the sharp, steady hand of Llorence’s script and Bishara’s innovative and empathetic direction; as well as a great cast including Julie Whitney Scott, Tom Holliday, and Jeff White. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
  • Queen Margaret by Jeanie O’Hare, adapted from William Shakespeare; directed by Philip Hickman (Actors’ Theatre) – This Jeanie O’Hare dissection of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, centered around a brilliant performance by Jessica Hughes as the eponymous queen, was a shining example of Actors’ Theatre’s power to bring complicated, adult work to a beautiful summer night without any pandering or bullshit. Hickman’s direction kept the tension high but also let the characters breathe. I talked about this for weeks. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
  • Althea and Angela by Todd Olson, directed by James Blackmon (JB3 Entertainment, presented at MadLab) – This world premiere historical drama about the friendship between Althea Gibson (Jaymi Horn), the first black American to win a Grand Slam tennis title, and her competitor/sometimes doubles partner Angela Buxton (Mallory Fischer) was a gift. Beautifully directed by James Blackmon for his JB3 Entertainment company. I called it “It’s an exciting slice of history, well-told; a profound look at the reasons and rewards of connecting with one another; and a dazzling reminder of how much beauty there is in being alive,” in my review for Columbus Underground.
  • King Hedley II by August Wilson, directed by Patricia Wallace-Winbush (PAST Productions with Actors’ Theatre) – One of only two August Wilson plays I hadn’t seen performed (*cough* could somebody do Seven Guitars?) paired with the perfect director for it, and Wallace-Winbush met or exceeded every one of my sky-high expectations. A grim, soaring take on the difficulty of getting out of the poverty cycle, others’ expectations, and our own tragic flaws. Wilma Hatton – also excellent in School Girls this year – gives one of those performances of a lifetime. I said, “The care with which Wallace-Winbush and her cast treat the milieu, the characters, and the words, make this an indelible evening and a reminder of the necessary empathy at the heart of all great tragedy,” in my review for Columbus Underground.  
Michelle Schroeder and David Glover in Witch by Jen Silverman, presented by Available Light. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh
  • Witch by Jen Silverman; directed by Whitney Thomas Eads (Available Light)This return from the last of the main theatre companies to come back, AVLT, was almost everything I could have hoped. An amazing central performance from Michelle Schroeder and stellar work from David Glover and Ian Short among others, directed beautifully by Whitney Thomas Eads. I called it “A towering example of exactly what I’m going to the theater for and an incandescent reminder of what Available Light brings to the Columbus theater community,” in my review for Columbus Underground.
  • Rent by Jonathan Larson; directed by Chari Arespacochaga (Short North Stage) – It’s no secret that my tastes have been shaped by a number of friendships over the years. Everything good is the result of a series of friendships, alliances, and warm acquaintances. I lost two friends who were big proponents of Rent and made me see it through a more forgiving eye than my anything-popular-has-to-suck teenage attitude and while it’s not perfect, I have a real fondness for it. Both passed this year, and we hadn’t been close for a little while, which kind of made seeing this again perfect. That feeling was bolstered by the fact that this was a beautiful production. RIP, Kate Wright (Opperman when I knew her). RIP, PBS. I never adequately explained how much you meant to me and my understanding of art and the world over the years. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.
  • Montag by Kate Tarker; directed by Dustin Willis (SoHo Rep, NYC) – This fall was my first trip back to Soho Rep, the site of many of my most profound theatrical experiences, and I lucked into a flamethrower of a play. I’ve never heard language like Kate Tarker’s, take on relationships – the friendship with the two women, beautifully acted by Nadine Malouf and Ariana Venturi, felt real and approachable even in the heightened circumstances of being under attack. Surreal details creeping into view – a disco ball grim reaper, a motorcycle-loving friend with an operatic area, and a crash of sunlight – are the right balance of terrifying and hilarious. I didn’t understand huge chunks of this, but I fucking loved it.
Cast of Imagine’s Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, photo by Jerri Shafer
  • Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks; directed by Kenny Leon (John Golden Theater, NYC) – Probably my favorite play ever, certainly always one of the two or three things in the conversation. I read Parks’ Topdog/Underdog in 2002 or 03, right after it was published in book form, and it set my hair on fire. I missed its original Broadway run by a couple of months on one of my first trips to New York. And afterward I didn’t miss any of her plays if I could help it and saw a couple terrific regional versions over the years (a very good one at CATCO in 2004 still stands in my mind), so there was no way I was going to miss the first Broadway revival. From the moment I walked into the building to Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You” booming through the PA, I was hyped. And at first, I was a little disappointed – Kenny Leon’s direction felt a little sitcom-y, a little boom-clap. But by the end of it, the incandescent performances of Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II were reverberating in my chest, making me interrogate why some choices made me uncomfortable. Especially when those same choices were turning some of the audience into people never having seen a play before – when Linc announces he’s lost his job, there’s a small chorus of “Awww,” that at first felt annoying and then was really endearing. Two hours of discussion and three manhattans with Anne at Sardi’s later, I got it. It might not be a perfect version (if such a thing even exists), but it’s a stunning, finely tooled for now take on this 20-year-old masterpiece.
  • Indecent by Paula Vogel; directed by Leda Hoffmann (CATCO) – Another take on a play I dearly love, probably my favorite of Vogel’s work, and I’m a fan in general. Leda Hoffmann (who also killed me with Mr. Burns last year) did a marvelous job paying tribute to the Jewish and queer histories in the play and making it luminous, thoughtful entertainment. I was wiped out and burned out from the week when I saw this, but I barely got to the coffee shop to write my review before texting half a dozen friends to tell them how good this tribute to the human need to get together and tell stories, to the eternal power of theater, was. I reviewed it for Columbus Underground.
  • Assassins by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book); directed by Brandon Boring (Imagine Productions) – I also saw an excellent production of Assassins, maybe my favorite Sondheim play, in St Louis while there for good friend John Wendland’s wedding, and what I thought was interesting about both was they did away with the abandoned-carnival setting. I got a kick out of Fly North Theatrical’s quite good version set at a political fandom convention, directed by Bradley Rohlf (and it had maybe the best Sam Byck I’ve ever seen, Sarah Lantsberger), but I was fully blown away by Brandon Boring’s staging of this in a courtroom. I previewed it because I was in Mexico City for the first weekend, but I spent my own money to see one of the last two performances, and it reminded me how good it feels to do that once in a while. It was riddled with great touches like the judge’s gavel for gunshots, the balladeer as a prosecuting attorney making his case to the ensemble as a jury, and the assassins gathered around a defense table.  An excellent cast with particularly strong performances from Chris Rusen, Brian Horne, Lexi Vestey, and Nancy Skaggs, delivered the hell out of the material. I had a few issues with projecting; some lyrics got lost when actors realistically turned away from my part of the audience, and I understand the reasons for them, but I’m still not in love with singing to backing tracks, but those minor quibbles couldn’t take the shine off my love of this production. Anne and I went to see our friend DJ at The Oracle after and never left the bar to make our way into the room where the dancing was happening, having a lot to say, which doesn’t normally happen on a play we’ve seen three productions of together before the one we watched that night. Building on his terrific Into the Woods a few years ago, Boring might well turn out to be our current standard-bearer for directing Sondheim.
Best Of record reviews

Best of 2022 Records

As with the past few years, the actual writing about these pieces will come with the playlist posts, but I like the idea of keeping the tradition of having a list of my favorite records of the year in one place. And good lord, there was a lot to love this year.

New Albums:

  • Florence and the Machine, Dance Fever
  • Anteloper, Pink Dolphins
  • Anaïs Mitchell, Anaïs Mitchell
  • Big Joanie, Back Home
  • Amanda Shires, Take It Like a Man
  • Gabriel Kahane, Magnificent Bird
  • Moor Mother, Jazz Codes
  • Brian Harnetty, Words and Silence
  • Loraine James, Building Something Beautiful For Me
  • Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis
  • Leyla McCalla, Breaking the Thermometer
  • Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Down Every Road
  • Lady Wray, Piece of Me
  • Terri Lynn Carrington, New Standards Vol. 1
  • Sick Thoughts, Heaven is No Fun
  • Kalia Vandever, Regrowth
  • SG Goodman, Teeth Marks
  • Tarbaby featuring Oliver Lake, Dance of the Evil Toys
  • Mali Obomsawin, Sweet Tooth
  • Terence Etc., VORTEX 


  • Various Artists, Here It Is: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen
  • Sonic Youth, In/Out/In
  • Various Artists, Disco Reggae Rockers
  • Mal Waldron, Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert
  • Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  • Charles Mingus, The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s
  • Various Artists, Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver
  • Cecil Taylor, The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Live at the Fillmore, 1997
  • The Lilybandits, Shifty’s Tavern
  • Various Artists, Life Between Islands
  • Various Artists, Sharayet El Disco
  • Ray Pérez y Perucho Torcat, They Do It
  • Elvin Jones, Revival: Live at Pookie’s Pub
  • Charles Stepney, Step on Step
  • Brotzmann/Graves/Parker, Historic Music Past Tense Future
  • Various Artists, Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson
Playlist record reviews

Playlist – October 2022

Last monthly playlist since December I’ll dedicate to my three best-of playlists (also glad there’s less paid writing in Dec because I churn out a lot of year-end words in those bloated gratitude exercises). Between working on this and writing it, I went to New York for the best trip – and the one that felt the most like a “real” NYC trip – since COVID first struck and my and Anne’s first trip to Mexico City (which I loved), but also got to enjoy my favorite season in town. It’s been a particularly good autumn at the end of a roller coaster year. To a holiday season filled with more joy than guilt. Onward, my friends.

  • Vieux Farka Touré and Khruangbin, “Diarabi” – I’ve really enjoyed all Khruangbin’s collaborations lately but Ali, their collaboration with Touré on a collection of his father’s classic songs, takes that love to another level. I’ve talked about seeing the elder Touré early in college and that being a huge gateway for me to other sounds and other connections across the world of music, and in a similar way, this re-imagining always keeps the vital core of the song but doesn’t treat it like a museum piece. Every track here is perfect, and we’ve got a reminder here of the covers album as an act of love.
  • Monophonics featuring Kelly Finnigan, “The Shape of My Teardrops” – Long one of my favorite psych-soul bands, San Francisco’s Monophonics, team up with vocalist/lyricist Kelly Finnigan for a concept album built around the artfully crumbling Sage Motel. This track puts them in that silky, saloon tempo they ride so well, drenched in strings and echoing background vocals. “Somebody’s crying over you.”
  • Brian Harnetty, “Thinking Out Loud in a Hermitage” – One of the brightest lights of Columbus composers, Harnetty has done some of his best work interacting with archives. I was sorry Anne and I were out of town for the live debut of this work. His new one, Words and Silences, takes on the American monk and scholar Thomas Merton, using recordings of his own voice. Not “takes on” in terms of grappling with but trying to understand, trying to see Merton as he is and as he presented himself. The arrangements around the vocals often have a cycling, hypnotic feeling, not getting lost in the details but letting them shine just like the diary entries, but those details are all massively important; the clarinet on this track breaks my heart open to let the light in. It’s the best, most fully realized work yet from someone I don’t think has ever made a bad record.
  • Gustav Lundgren Trio, “My Dear Country” – This bucolic title track off Swedish jazz guitarist Lundgren’s latest record teams him with drummer Karl-Henrik Ousbäck (who’s worked with Lage Lund and Ambrose Akinmusire, among others) and bassist Pär-Ola Landin whose melodic lines add some additional gravity and nuance to the gorgeous subtlety of the tune and Ousbäck’s textured drumming (those dancing cymbals around the three-minute mark) changes the complexion of the song’s atmosphere as well as adding propulsion.
  • Bruce Barth Trio, “In Memoriam – for George Floyd & so many others” – Pianist Bruce Barth’s gorgeous new record Dedication features bassist Vicente Archer (a key component of the last couple of great Jeremy Pelt and Orrin Evans records) and drummer Montez Coleman who I think I first heard with Roy Hargrove and it’s a perfect meshing between piano and rhythm section. Befitting the title, the record features beautiful tributes to fellow pianists McCoy Tyner and Tommy Flanagan but I kept coming back to this heartbreaking elegy to black men killed by police brutality.
  • Oren Ambarchi, “IV” – I’ve been a fan of Oren Ambarchi since finding his work with the eai crowd like Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M in the early ’00s and, not long after, his crucial contributions to several Sunn O))) records and side projects. His new one, Shebang, is his most immediately accessible and overall satisfying album to date. The four numbered tracks add layers and textures, climaxing in this burst of shimmering color, featuring Jim O’Rourke’s synths, BJ Cole’s pedal steel, Chris Abrahams’ piano, and Julia Reidy’s 12-string.
  • Tigran Hamasyan featuring Mark Turner, “All The Things You Are” – Pianist Hamasyan delivered his first record of standards with the stunning StandArt, and this take on one of the quintessential standards gave me chills all the way down. At times pulsing, floating in space, like the square in a Rothko painting or a Steve Reich piece, always coming back to that perfect melody, dancing with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
  • Meg Baird, “Will You Follow Me Home?” – I got into Meg Baird through her time in the Philly free-folk band Espers and have remained a rabid fan through multiple solo records, her time in Heron Oblivion (who were my absolute favorite part of the little Columbus psych fest Melted a few years ago), and various other collaborations. This advance track off her upcoming solo disc Furling is everything I love about her work, that stunning, pure-water voice front and center with backings that have a warm-light ’70s quality but with enough weirdness, enough gaps around the edges to keep it interesting.
  • Melissa Stylianou featuring Gene Bertoncini and Ike Sturm, “It Might As Well Be Spring” – One of my favorite contemporary jazz singers, I got into Stylianou through her work in the vocal trio Duchess (seeing them at the 55 Bar at a happy hour show, sitting down the bar from half a dozen big-name band leaders, is still a memory I treasure). She tears into one of my favorite standards – in a more straight-ahead take than the Hamayasan earlier – with a legend of jazz guitar, Gene Bertoncini, and the warm, swinging bass of Ike Strum.
  • George Strait, “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” – This song was one of my gateway drugs to Billy Joe Shaver, in the version by Tom T. Hall, and so it’s no surprise that this take on it by one of the great gods of the Olympus of Texas Music on the stacked-front-to-back-with-gold tribute album Live Forever would have been one of my standouts. The layers of George Strait in his Lion in Winter phase covering a song by one of his influences and doing a song that influence wrote as a young man trying to place himself in that great lineage of Texas singer-songwriters give this some additional juice for me, but it’s also just a stellar read on one of the great ballads. “Well, I reckon we’re gonna ramble till hell freezes over.”
  • Terence Etc, “In Contemplation of Clair’s Scent” – The hurtling, echoing but tightly controlled drums on this infectious track tied it together with the Andy/Sherwood collab of the previous track. I knew Terence Nance as a filmmaker, but this supernova of an album, VORTEX, was my first exposure to him as a singer and songwriter. The grooves are refreshing and surprising, the lyrics finely chiseled but also elliptical. I have no idea what this will be like live – if there are even any plans for it – but if it comes within 200 miles of me, I’ll have a ticket and be in the front.
  • Electric Shit featuring Walter Daniels, “La Bondad Y La Maldad” – This dovetails to help sum up a year of great but expensive and exhausting travel. While researching the fantastic Mexico trip Anne did most of the planning for, I discovered a show Electric Shit was headlining. Looking into them, I found their release from this year teamed the Ecatepec band with gnarled Austin harmonica master Walter Daniels (who co-led those South Filthy records I love and was so glad to finally see them live this year in Memphis) on a tribute record to the Atlanta band The Subsonics for this raging Spanish cover of “Good Half – Bad Half.”
  • Bad Manor, “Hallowed Ground” – This closing track from the black metal band Bad Manor’s delightful debut full-length The Haunting welds a sinister groove to lacerating guitars and a barbed howl, and hits a similar throw-on-your-old-leather-jacket-and-thrash-in-a-dark-room sweet spot for me as the last track.
  • Horace Andy, “Come After Midnight” – I liked reggae legend Horace Andy’s earlier record this year, Midnight Rocker, but I love producer Adrian Sherwood’s rework of Midnight Scorchers, especially this moody, seductive lead-off track. Summoning up a late-night dispatch with the loneliness and urgency of a broadcast from a dying star.
  • Lustre, “Faith” – I’m late to the party on this ambient/atmospheric black metal band, but sole member Henrik Sunding was in a band I liked quite a bit, Hypothermia. And their new record, A Thirst for Summer Rain enraptured me from the first few notes, especially this lovely instrumental that sprays acidic guitars over beds of synths.
  • The Delines, “My Blood Bleeds The Darkest Blue” – I love the Delines just as much as I loved lead singer Amy Boone’s (Damnations TX) and principal songwriter Willy Vlautin’s (Richmond Fontaine) previous bands, which I didn’t think was possible, my ardor for those earlier groups was so strong. But every record has grown that passion for this band, and the new single The Lost Duets actually has their voices directly interacting with one another, so it took me to the moon. The splashes of trumpet and organ stabs like dust swirling in the afternoon sunlight are among the details that make this tune feel like a hand-chiseled window into a world we shouldn’t see.
  • Oakwalker, “Future Lover” – This Memphis band features the lush multi-tracked vocals of Victoria Dowdy (who also plays rhythm guitar) and co-writer/co-leader Ethan Baker’s violin with a swinging rhythm section of Graham Winchester on drums (who’s the secret weapon of what feels like most of Memphis these days, including Jack Oblivian and the Sheiks, The Turnstyles, Devil Train, and the stellar reunited Compulsive Gamblers Anne and I saw this year) and Tyler Marberry. This walked a similar line through the landscape of the bloodied but unbowed as the previous track, tipping a bit more toward hope for the future.
  • Plains, “Problem With It” – I’ve been a big fan of Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee since Cerulean Salt but this collaboration, I Walked With You a Ways, was my first exposure to Jess Williamson. Another almost impossible choice of a song, but this loping rootsy tune about holding the people in our lives – and ourselves – to the right standard, scratched an itch down deep in me. That electric guitar solo – not sure if it’s Brad Cook or Alex Farrar – is in my personal hall of fame for concise solos that sum up the complicated emotions of the melody and lyric. “I drive fast on high alert past the Jet Pep and the Baptist church. On the county line, I’ll be a songbird softly heard, my loose change falling out. Got a heartbreak burn, take the quickest route on this four-lane highway. I’ll trace it in the clouds.”
  • First Aid Kit, “Out of My Head” – This second single from the Swedish folk duo’s stellar record Palomino weaves hints of shadowy drone through a nimble dance beat and sticky harmonies. “All my dreaming, all my trials – where they’ll lead, does it matter now?”
  • Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn, “Umber” – I’m still getting over Second Line, last year’s record that helped cement Dawn Richard among my favorite current R&B singers (and the incendiary set at Big Ears this year), so this collaboration with friendly acquaintance Spencer Zahn (his band Father Figure crashed on my floor but I didn’t formally meet him until the next year’s Winter Jazzfest) was right up my alley. Zahn’s textured chamber jazz arrangements meld with Richard’s dynamic, nuanced voice and lyrics in a way that makes almost too much sense. Every track on Pigments is winning, but the shifting of foreground and background on this one kept calling to me when I tried to choose one.
  • Urban Elegance, “Midnight Flowers” – This homegrown collaboration unites Columbus heavyweights producer/electronic musician Storm9000 with bassist/former guitar maker to the stars Phil Maneri and harpist Trista Hill. It’s not only a great example of community in my town; I believe this collab was sparked by a meeting at my friend Scott Woods’ invaluable Streetlight Guild space.
  • Batts, “All That I Need” – Nightline, her sophomore record with project Batts was my first exposure to Melbourne singer-songwriter Tanya Batts, and it took my breath away. The crunching rhythm section, Brendan Tsui and Lachlan O’Kane augmented by slipper synths, rubs against the soft-focus light around the powerful vocal. “How you feeling, babe? Has it hit you yet? I can see the whole wide world. Let’s never forget how we feel right now.”
  • Illogic, “Passion Fruit” – Illogic was the first rapper in Columbus I was a big fan of, seeing him on stages around campus and making great records with killing producers like Blueprint, DJ PRZM, and Blockhead in the early ’00s. I lost track of his work for a few years but his new record The Transition not only finds him growing into maturity without being boring, it also finds him coming into his own as a beatmaker with warm, classic tracks that speak to today as much as they conjure nostalgia.
  • Scratcha DVA with Tribal Brothers, DJ Polo, and Nasty Jack, “Pull Up – Rhubarb and Custard Vocal” – I’ve been a big fan of British electronic musician Scratcha DVA since I first heard his work a few years ago and I’m pretty sure the person lending some excellent rhymes to this is Nasty Jack but I couldn’t find any additional information about this track. The sliding clatter of the beat and those low tones speaks to me, a Saturday night rager but also with some wistfulness shot through it.
  • Micah Schnabel, “Dirtbag” – Schnabel’s solo work has gotten deeper and knottier, more complex but lit by a brilliant blue flame. He plants a flag against the encroaching wave of homogenization and for the pleasures of community, of being there for the people you love and letting that include yourself. And he ties that to a pulsating groove (anchored here by Jason Winner on drums and Micah on bass) and a singalong chorus that reminds me of my pal Angela saying “Everything of theirs is an anthem,” over a decade ago. “You can ridicule my resume. I did not ask how you get paid. So tell me, how do you get paid?”
  • Labretta Suede and the Motel 6, “Teenagers Gettin’ High” – This New Zealand-bred but Dallas-based retro rock group are putting out one fizzy, swinging stomp after another, and this burst of greasy energy might be my favorite yet.
  • Los Carnash, “Borracho” – Another band I discovered doing research for the Mexico City trip and I think they were the one band we managed to see at the Sonido Necrotico show. A pummeling drummer and a charismatic screamer of a frontman power these short bursts of metal-flecked punk (but on the opposite end of the spectrum from metalcore) power.
  • Damjonboi, “Top Shelf” – Rising Detroit rapper and producer Damjonboi works an appealingly easy going flow, sliding between and around a menacing beat that laces electronic handclaps and stuttered hi-hats with piano stabs and slashing strings.
  • Mali Obomsawin, “Blood Quantum (Nəwewəčəskawikαpáwihtawα)” – Bassist, percussionist, and vocalist Mali Obomsawin, of the First Nation at Odanak, made a powerful statement of purpose, using jazz, the chants of her people (those she grew up with and the contemporary chants like the one underpinning this piece, co-written with Lokotah Sanborn and Carol Dana of the Penobscot Nation, and every other form available). A paean to the beauty and hopefulness in defiance, with a crushing rhythm section that finds Obomsawin partnered with drummer Savannah Harris and guitarist Miriam Elhaji and a brilliant horn section of Allison Burik on alto sax and bass clarinet, Noah Campbell on saxophones, and co-producer Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and flugelhorn.
  • Jake Blount featuring Demeanor, “Give Up The World” – Jake Blount’s at the fore of the much-needed corrective movement of artists reclaiming the banjo and old time music, tying it to its African roots and telling stories that speak to the here and now in a way that’s both beautiful and refreshing. This year’s The New Faith, is his finest statement yet. On this track, Blount teams with rapper Demeanor (Rhiannon Giddens’ nephew), bassist Mali Oobomsawin, and guitarist/violinist/coproducer Brian Slattery for a record that’s as catchy as it is sharp. “We must leave this world behind.”
  • Julianna Riolino, “Isn’t It a Pity” – Toronto-based singer-songwriter Riolino works with more contemporary roots forms, ’70s Laurel Canyon and ’60s pop soul (that marvelous carnival/cocktail party organ from Thomas Hammerton, Anthony Ronaldi’s bari sax and the shattering, rising guitar solo from I suspect Daniel Romano but could be producer Aaron Goldstein) around her voice like that first bolt of light coming onto the frost-covered window with a great cup of coffee, and witty lyrics with a strong point of view but room for everything else in the world. “A wily old cadaver, a velvet swinging hammer, a windmill of a force is what keeps us both apart.”
  • Rhianna, “Lift Me Up” – Generally I’m on record as preferring the dance numbers – even, or especially, the minor key tension-filled ones – of Rhianna’s catalog, but she his this breathtaking ballad so far out of the park I keep playing it over and over again, slack-jawed. “Burning in a hopeless dream. Hold me when you go to sleep.”
  • Shy Martin, “Wish I Didn’t Know You” – Swedish singer-songwriter Shy Martin splits the difference of the last couple tracks in this spiderweb of a track, seemingly fragile but detailed and incredibly strong.
  • Sunny War, “No Reason” – Bringing the tempo up a little with this more direct anthem – that still doesn’t skimp on the complications of the world singer-songwriter Sunny War aims to reflect. One of the acts I was sorriest to miss at this year’s Nelsonville Music Festival and I’m kicking myself even harder with every song she puts out. “Don’t know you well but I can bet you did some things that you regret.”
  • Nora O’Connor, “Follow Me” – Nora O’Connor’s one of those voices I think of whenever I think of the Chicago country scene, one of the not-in-my-town scenes I gravitated toward first, from her work with The Blacks, Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, the Flat Five, Robbie Fulks, and Mavis Staples. But I get even more excited when there’s new solo work under her own name. “Follow Me” doesn’t disappoint; it’s an easygoing stroll through a sunset when you don’t necessarily know where you’re headed.
  • Seth Avett, “The Poet Game” – Another stroll through memories and an understanding of the way they point toward the future, as Avett brother Seth takes on one of my all time favorite songs as part of a tribute EP to one of the great songwriters, Seth Avett sings Greg Brown. It doesn’t reveal anything new about the song but the little pauses, the way he finds a middle ground between the phrasing of the original and his style of singing, works for me on every level. “I had a friend who drank too much and played too much guitar, and we sure got along. Reel-to-reels rolled across the country near and far, with letters, poems, and songs. But these days he don’t talk to me and he won’t tell me why; I miss him every time I hear his name. I don’t know what he’s doing or why our friendship died while we play the poet game.”
  • Alela Diane, “Dream a River” – From that first line, “I just returned to say goodbye,” over the circling acoustic guitar riff, this song stood out to be on Alela Diane’s consistently excellent Looking Glass album and when those strings come in, I’m transported. “I hear her silver bracelets down the hall. That, and the lingering cry of a song. Everything’s exactly as we left it but where’s the sun come through?”
  • Loraine James, “The Perception of Me (Crazy Nigger)” – The surge in interest in Julius Eastman, a tragically overlooked composer of the downtown scene in ’70s and ’80s New York, has been a blessing to chamber music lovers and to me personally. Phantom Limb’s stellar work assembling and releasing his work also extends into projects like this where electronic composer/producer Loraine James uses some of his most iconic pieces as a jumping off point. This revisioning takes the original piece, which I first heard on Unjust Malaise for four pianos, and removes the percussive part of the hypnotic movements, stretching it out, pulling it back, and working it for different types of keyboard while retaining both its beautiful and its raging, powerful defiance.
  • Mavis Staples, “If It Be Your Will” – I always end with something that feels to me like a prayer and this is both one of the best examples of that form in a pop song, Leonard Cohen’s original closer from Various Positions, given a definitive reading by one of the great American voices. Blue Note’s stellar all-around tribute record to Cohen, Here It Is finds Larry Klein assembling an all-star core band of Bill Frisell (whose chiming guitar comping is crucial to the atmosphere throughout), the rhythm section of Kevin Hays on piano, Scott Colley on bass, and Nate Smith on drums (who fit together so perfectly, especially the drifting clouds of Smith’s brushwork here), longtime Frisell collaborator Greg Leisz on pedal steel, and Immanuel Wilkins on saxophone (following, teasing out the textures in Staples’ read on the song). It’s a perfect track on one of the few great-all-the-way-through tribute albums. Thank you all, as always, for taking this trip with me.
Playlist record reviews

Playlist – September 2022

Once again – as befits my favorite cultural season – a lot of writing for other outlets, so I’m racing to get this one done and out before New York this week. But also as befitting my favorite season in general, so much great work. A little more meditative maybe but also some hard partying tracks. Hope you’re all doing well, whether you inherently love fall as much as I do or not. Love to anyone who takes the time to listen to and/or reads these.

  • Beth Orton, “Arms Around a Memory” – I was one of the many people who got my head split open by Beth Orton’s Trailer Park when I was 16 and every record through Sugaring Season blew me away, with 2002’s Jim O’Rourke-produced Comfort of Strangers as a personal high water mark. Her new one, Weather Alive, after a six-year wait, brings me back to the best parts of all of those records while stirring in new colors. This track, with a combination of English (including drummer Tom Skinner who knocked my face in this spring playing with Sons of Kemet) and NYC (bassist Shazad Ismaily who shows up here with so much regularity I should send him something, Antibalas’s Stuart Bogie on sax, Winged Victory for the Sullen’s Dustin O’Halloran, and guitarist Greg McMurray whose guitar is a key voice of the current chamber music scene) band centered around Orton’s piano and voice, became an immediate front runner in a record I have a hard time picking favorites from. The subtle, insistent rhythms and repetition and the expansiveness of the synths, backing vocals, and reeds feel like walking through streets you know almost too well, while Orton’s murmured vocal wrestles with ghosts and finds exactly the place to put that memory in a way I still struggle with more often than not. For me, this feels like walking through New York in the morning – helped by the specific reference in the first verse and the Johnny Thunders nod in the title – but I know it works just as well for those memories in the long shadows of London or Kansas City. “And I got to questioning my credibility like you’re the reliable witness to what I feel, though I can still taste the sweetness of what we had, and there’s no one will kiss me as deep as you know you have. Once that I saw how to see all of your love was looking back at me, it was hard not to fulfill the prophecy we could have been.”
  • Afghan Whigs, “Domino and Jimmy” – The new Afghan Whigs record is still sinking in for me; it’s a slower build than the last few post-reunion albums. But I loved this expansive, cracked ballad immediately, and not just because it reunites them with my pal and Scrawl co-leader Marcy Mays, reviving her character from “My Curse” and putting her in direct dialogue with the male half, voiced, of course, by Dulli. It’s a prime example of their rocket ride to the bottom songs, land they plow better than anyone else I can think of, giving glory to people in their worst moments. “You are lost in sight and lost inside my head. You seem to insinuate that I leave. I know it’s been a while. But, baby, if you were waiting for me, we’re going out in style.”
  • Terri Lyne Carrington, “Circling” – One of the great drummers, composers, and bandleaders of our time, Terri Lyne Carrington, turned her attention to a much-needed project to start redressing the place of women in the jazz composition canon with her editing of The New Standards Vol. 1, 100 pieces by women and including many of the best composers working now. This beautiful Gretchen Parlato song augments Carrington’s killer core group of rhythm section mates Kris Davis on piano and Linda May Han Oh on bass, Nicholas Payton on trumpet, and Matthew Stevens on guitar (who co-produces with Carrington), with guitarist Julian Lage, vocalist Michael Mayo, and percussionist Negah Santos – someone please correct me if I’ve gotten the vocalist wrong, I tried to piece this together from partial credits I could find googling. The warm, swirling melody and the perfect empathy of the group – Carrington’s cymbals on the verses, cutting through the dancing guitars, Davis’ piano at precisely the right moments; Payton’s trumpet solo that feels like liquid light – made this an immediate standout on another record that has so many highlights for me, and a song that hit me at a moment I really needed it. “Stop wishing on so many stars above. All that you’ve done has come from wanting love. What if we met at some other place in time? There’d still be rain. There’d still be sun to shine. Your happiness to give away is so much more than all the games they play. So be done.”
  • Garbage Greek, “Bad Habit” – I can’t believe I haven’t put something from this record – one of my favorites of the year and one of my favorite Columbus rock records in a very long time – on a previous playlist. I’ve long liked Garbage Greek, the harder garage project of guitarist/lead vocalist Lee Mason and bassist/vocalist Patrick Koch when schedules stopped their previous (also great) band Comrade Question, but hearing it stripped to a three-piece from five, those two with powerhouse drummer Jason Winner, occasionally augmented live (and on this record) with percussion and backing vocals from Adam Scoppa after the pandemic, shot up to favorite band status. And that added potency is distilled into their finest record, Quality Garbage, which is everything I want from garage rock: muscular hooks, grooves that work as well for a dance party as a fist fight, lyrics that stick but aren’t showy. This song hit me early, but there isn’t a bad track to be found. “I have a nasty habit of forgiving you.”
  • Black Thought and Danger Mouse, featuring Michael Kiwanuka, “Aquamarine” – Roots frontman Black Thought stretches in different directions on Cheat Codes, a stunning collaborative record with producer Danger Mouse. This track, featuring Michael Kiwanuka on the hook, combines dusty samples with gleaming synths and chopped guitar stings as the perfect backdrop for his laid back, layered rhymes. “Trying to find soul again, but my thoughts corrupt the vials and contaminate the console again. It’s a shame, but I cannot complain though I am not the same.”
  • Cory Branan featuring Brian Fallon and Jason Isbell, “When In Rome, When in Memphis” – Memphis Americana singer-songwriter Branan was the first small club show I saw in Columbus after getting vaccinated, and it was a wake-up call to just how good his songs are and his rich coffee after a long night voice just seems to get stronger and more interesting. His new record When I Go I Ghost is a similar reminder of the power of his work, full of interesting arrangements and, while it’s early in my listening, the equal of instant classics The No-Hit Wonder and Adios. This single, with Fallon and Isbell lending backing vocals, is a classic on-the-road rocker with a huge riff and big drums, but wrapped in a little more abstraction, leaning into the mystery that the genre tends to strip out.
  • Danielle Ponder, “Only The Lonely” – My first trip to Nelsonville Music Festival in many years had some frustrations, but it did my heart good to see how much so many of my dearest friends loved it, and it had a few sets that blew me away, including my first exposure to the torchy R&B of Danielle Ponder. Seeing her create such a degree of intimacy in a huge field from the main stage, then digging into her records, has me dying to see her in a club. The crisp crack of the drums under a phantom smoke choir and suspended electric piano chords underpins a vocal as rich and potent as any of the great soul singers of history. “There’s a truth in the dark. It’s gonna break you down, so steel your heart. ‘You don’t love me, you just lonely,’ that’s what my mind say. Your daddy left you guilty, that’s what you don’t see.”
  • The McCrary Sisters featuring Allen McCrary, “Run On” – I’m a sucker for classic gospel quartet music and I’ve been a big fan of the McCrary Sisters for about a decade; I think I came to them through their connections to the Fairfield Four. Coming on the heels of the sad news of Deborah McCrary’s passing, they released this stormy version of the gospel standard “Run On” I heard on one of my Grandmother’s records but snapped into my attention on the Blind Boys of Alabama 2001 record Spirit of the Century. The McCrarys give us a definitive version of a song done so well by so many.
  • Dr. John featuring Aaron Neville and Katie Pruitt, “End of the Line” – Dr. John’s posthumous album Things Happen That Way also features moving versions of “Old Time Religion” featuring Willie Nelson, “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and the Cowboy Jack Clement-penned title track, but I kept coming back to this laid-back swinging take on the Traveling Wilburys song, with fellow New Orleans icon Aaron Neville and Nashville singer Katie Pruitt. Wreathed in second-line horns like smoke, with subtle church-steeped grooves from the great drummer Herlin Riley (powering the best of the post-“Tain” Watts era of Wynton Marsalis) and Jon Cleary’s B3. Hearing those three voices come together on “I’m satisfied” touches me every single time.
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Soul Sweet Song” – Sometimes the undeniably strong Tedeschi Trucks Band gets a little too jammy for me – hearing this as I was playing with the order of the playlist, Anne said, “What are you some kind of a hippie?” – but there’s a warmth and a love for the world their best work has that resonates with me and this is a prime example of them firing on all cylinders. Band members Gabe Dixon and Mike Mattison wrote this in tribute to the late multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge and Susan Tedeschi gives it a vocal like a bonfire, the only sign of life for miles, in the darkness, the promise of warmth and the sun rising again. “In the memory of your melody, when the dawn breaks out, the birds all sing. And I feel your rhythm moving me, ’cause your soul’s sweet song’s still singing.”
  • Late Night Cardigan, “B-Movie” – I hear a similar play of sunlight and shadow to the previous couple of tracks on this tune by Memphis four-piece Late Night Cardigan from their terrific record Life is Bleak and It’s My Cheat Day. Vocalist Kacee Russell sells the loneliness of trying to make someone suddenly being gone make sense, as her and Stephen Turner’s guitars intertwine over the crunching rhythm section of Jesse Mansfield and Zach Mitchell’s steadily turning up the flames.
  • Rich Ruth, “Desensitization and Reprocessing” – For me, this centerpiece of Rich Ruth’s (Nashville musician Michael Ruth) simultaneously mournful and majestic record I Survived, It’s Over is one of the keystones of instrumental music as a way of processing trauma, especially of processing the pandemic we’re still in but I don’t want to make it sound like therapy. The compositional rigor, the delicate layering, the building to fiery free jazz horns and clicking back into the more placid textures of synth and pedal steel, all make it a piece that can stand up to whatever previous associations a listener brings to it.
  • Madison Cunningham, “My Rebellion” – I was a fan of Madison Cunningham’s work on Chris Thile’s Live From Here but never caught one of her own records until this year’s spectacular Revealer. This song’s staccato, repetitive pattern on Cunningham’s guitar ties it to the previous songs as it brings up the emotional intensity and forward motion of the playlist with a supple vocal that takes the melody into surprising places and leaves the lyrics rattling in the listener’s skull. “What is wrong? Have you forgot I’m not a stranger? You’re lead-footed and headstrong and the quiet turns me into a rambler.”
  • Sick Thoughts, “Someone I Can Talk To” – I’ve been a fan of New Orleans Sick Thoughts since first seeing them a number of years ago in Memphis when they were kind of the ur-Gonerfest band, punchy rhythm section in the intense undertow of frontman Drew Owen’s powerful presence and energy. But their new record Heaven is No Fun, and the drop-to-my-knees reminder of everything I love about rock and roll set Anne and I got to see at this year’s Gonerfest took them to another level, the songs are sharper, taking the ear candy riffs that would be tossed off on a bridge on earlier records and allowed to develop into whole songs. A heaping dose of Thin Lizzy in a stew of classic ’77 punk and early ’00s garage but done as well as anyone’s doing it, with more hooks in that scene than anything I’ve heard since Gentleman Jesse’s Leaving Atlanta. My rock record for the end of summer and my favorite record loaded in the barrel for next summer. “Well, there are sometimes that I don’t know where I am. And there are some things that I’ll never understand. There must be someone I can talk to about this. I never realized how much friendship can be missed. But it’s no good now, there’s no one but we two. And I’m alone in the city with you.”
  • Laura Benitez and the Heartache, “Let the Chips Fall” – San Francisco’s Laura Benitez and her crack band crafted one of my favorite sets of classic Bakersfield country/rockabilly in a while with California Centuries. Dave Zirbel’s pedal steel stands out on this track amid a tight rhythm section and Benitez’s clipped, punky vocal on the verses and soaring notes on the choruses. “It took me too many years to start to be brave, and I gotta move now while there’s still a part of me that’s left to save. I know that failing ain’t worse than doing nothing at all, so let the dice roll and let the chips fall.”
  • Snakehips featuring Tinashe, “Who’s Gonna Love You Tonight” – British electronic duo Snakehips reteam with one of my favorite current R&B singers, Tinashe, on this slinky sun-drenched beckoning/indictment rising to a powerful gospel-seared climax. “Who’s gonna tell you that you ain’t just high? Show you that you love this life.”
  • Makaya McCraven, “This Place, That Place” – I’ve been a fan of Makaya McCraven since the very first time I heard him – drawn to that first record because my old friend Tony Barba played on a track or two. And that fandom increased exponentially when I finally saw him life; he merges the repetitive, cell-based constructions of hip-hop, electronic dance music, and modern composition with the strengths of classic free jazz, a nimbleness on his kit, and a Mingus-esque talent for bringing out exactly the strengths of his players. When I interviewed him earlier this year to preview a (stunning) Wexner Center show Anne and I took her Mom to, he talked about the upcoming record, and how great it was that each of the labels he’d worked with recently, free jazz standard bearers International Anthem, British electronic stars XL, and legendary new music label Nonesuch, were teaming up to release In These Times. Hearing it, that almost feels like a metaphor. This record takes everything he’s learned and worked with up to now, especially in the larger band shows like the mind-blowing Webster Hall hit I saw at Winter Jazz Fest a few years ago and ties it all together while also moving forward. Brandee Younger’s harp is a key component of this track, tying the strings together with the horns and Joel Ross’ vibraphone.
  • Julian Lage, “Let Every Room Sing” – Julian Lage’s View With a Room reunites him with the crackling, empathetic rhythm section bassist Jorge Roeder, who I’ve been a fan of since hearing him with trombonist Ryan Keberle’s Catharsis, and Bad Plus/Happy Apple founder Dave King on drums, and adds the additional element of guitarist Bill Frisell who also has an extensive history with King. Their two lines snake and crack around one another in a way that always is surprising and invigorating. There’s enough crunchy noise on this Lage original to remind old heads of Frisell’s early work but without forsaking the Americana leanings and gorgeous melodies of both their more recent outings.
  • Nikki Lane, “Live/Love” – I was a fan of Nikki Lane’s songs and voice the second I heard All or Nothin’, and each record has deepened and broadened that appreciation, but Denim & Diamonds feels like the purest distillation of her magic yet. Whether it’s extra time on the songs, an affinity for Josh Homme’s sympathetic production – he also plays piano, percussion, and mellotron on this track – that works as well on gentle, west coast lopes like this one as the stomping dance numbers, or just a magic confluence of a number of factors, this is one of the most addictive albums I’ve sank into all year.
  • Ice Spice, “Munch (Feelin’ U)” – This Bronx-based rapper’s breakthrough single was all over this summer and coming to it a little late made me very nostalgic for the days I would have heard this in a club or coming out of a car rolling down the street. In less than two minutes, with a creeping track by Riot, it’s a perfect shot in the arm of low-key and well-earned braggadocio. “Sayin’ you love me but what do that mean? Pretty as fuck, and he like that I’m mean.”
  • Snarky Puppy, “Honiara” – Instrumental jazz-funk band Snarky Puppy returned this year with Empire Central, continuing the snarling crime-movie jazz tendency I loved so much on Culcha Vulcha (and the barn-burning live set Andrew Patton and I caught on that tour) but, true to form, bringing in elements from their various side projects and never staying still for too long. The woozy horns and bursting-at-the-seams production keep any part of this from getting too tidy, too clean, and it’s deep enough for the listeners but it’ll get a party out of their chairs.
  • Dmo!, “Save Your Soul” – I found this through one of my favorite local musicians, writer-keyboardist Brandon “BJazz” Scott who co-wrote and co-produced this with Aaron Hardin. I got to know BJazz’s work through his accompanying Talisha Holmes on some of her best thorny R&B and Hardin has a resume including Raheem DeVaughn and Eric Roberson, and this smooth and smoky cry into the darkness is squarely in both of those sweet spots. I couldn’t find much about the singer here but believe I’ll be checking for him going forward.
  • Madi Task, “Quitter” – A newer (or at least newer to me) Columbus singer-songwriter, with some similar gospel tendencies in the piano line and the way she leans way back behind the beat and the lunges at it. It’s raw and vibrant, powerful and a little unformed. “I fill up my cup but it tastes mediocre. The conversations are relying on me. There’s nothing to sip on and nothing to say; I’ll save my wit for a better day. Can’t take the silence? Go back to sleep, ’cause I don’t owe you a goddam thing.”
  • My Idea, “Cry Mfer” – I loved Palberta so I’m obviously interested in whatever else Lily Konigsberg is working on, and this collaboration with Nate Amos didn’t disappoint. The repetition and mix of warmth and chill groove feels like a cold breeze walking through a city and her voice cuts through it like streetlight daggers. “In all my life, I can hardly say I’ve been a light-caster. Found that talking to God was a lot faster.”
  • Courtney Marie Andrews, “These Are The Good Old Days” – The shimmering, mysterious keyboard riff that opens this track sets the tone of questioning memory even while the memory’s happening, interrogating motives, and is a magic springboard (along with other subtle touches on the arrangment: an acid trail guitar, brushed drums) for her candle-in-the-dark vocals in this standout from Andrews’ Loose Future album. “People like me think feelings are facts; falling in love gives us a heart attack.”
  • John Thayer featuring Tara Shupe, “I Couldn’t Find It In the Dark” – John Thayer from the SF band Monkey Lizards made a perfect slightly-bent Americana record with The Hottest Record Of The Year and this song, collaborating with Tara Shupe as co-writer and playing mandolin, piano, and bass along with adding magnetic harmony vocals to Thayer’s holy quaver and guitar and Brian Surano’s subtle, sauntering drums. “I been up every trail, down every road. I’d ask anyone, wherever I would go. Look for it in their faces, and I could see a spark. But I couldn’t find it in the dark.”
  • James Brandon Lewis Quartet, “Molecular” – Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis is killing it lately, from tracks with artists like Moor Mother, William Parker, and Alan Braufman, to one of the greatest contemporary jazz masterpieces Jesup Wagon. I was already sorry I hadn’t gotten to see him live yet, but this new live record with his stunning quartet MSM Molecular Systematic Music – Live rubs salt in that wound. Perfect, empathetic group playing with the insanely tight but never airless rhythm section of Brad Jones and Chad Taylor alongside pianist Aruán Ortiz who fully redirects gravity with that solo about four minutes in, playing killer compositions.
  • Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding, “Endangered Species” – One of the great saxophone players of the 20th century, Wayne Shorter has never rested on his laurels or stopped searching, stopped question. This crack quartet of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Leo Genovese (who all get front-of-record billing), tear into this Shorter composition originally heard on his oft-maligned ’80s record Atlantis with a fire that can make any of us who couldn’t hear past the shiny textures of that record feel like an idiot (I may be projecting). Every piece of this – recorded live at the Detroit Jazz Festival – is perfection.
  • The Paranoid Style, “Steve Cropper Plays Femme Fatale” – I was extremely late to this killer indie pop band from DC led by Elizabeth Nelson and Timothy Bracy, but John Wendland’s playing songs from For Executive Meeting including this one won me over. This jumble of images tying Memphis and New York, the past and the present together, over jangling, barbed guitars, makes my heart sing. “In the final estimation, in the final accounting, God have mercy on the man who believes what he’s been doubting. God have mercy on the man who sees her walking down the street. Before you start you know you are already beat.”
  • Giuda, “Medley (Get it over / Space Walk / Watch Your Step)” – One of my favorite contemporary pub-rock examples, this Italian band picks up where Slade left off and Dave Wallingford and I still talk about that one perfect time they came through Ace of Cups. While I’m still hungry for their next visit, Giuda’s raging Live at Punk Rock Raduno captures some of that power and the vibrating enthusiasm of a band and crowd playing one of the first shows after lockdown.
  • Off!, “Free LSD” – Anne turned me onto Off! in the days of their first EPs, drawn from her love of Burning Brides (another band I wouldn’t know without her) from which guitarist Dimitri Coates came, uniting with Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, and new rhythm section of Autry Fulbright II (from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead) and Justin Brown (if the Discogs is to be believed, the same drummer who blew me away on Flying Lotus, Gerald Clayton, and Ambrose Akinmusire records). This is another slab of powerful, surging rock.
  • Cam’ron and A-Trak, “All I Really Wanted” – Even hearing about this collaboration with Dipset founder Cam’ron and downtown DJ A-Trak made the nostalgia molecules in my blood boil. Cam’ron’s mainstream rap hits were the soundtrack of my immediately-post-college years and around that time I started working at Chase and friends there said, “You need to check out the Diplomats double CD.” Around that time, A-Trak was getting a lot of buzz as a club DJ leading to touring with Kanye West and then founding Fool’s Gold records and exploding. This reunion doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but is a magic example of how that music made so many of us feel, and still does. “By the time I turned thirty, I completed my bucket list. I don’t take threats likely, careful who you’re fucking with; dying’ll make you way more famous than your publicist.”
  • EST Gee, “Bow And Say Grace” – This standout track from Louisville rapper EST Gee’s debut full length I Never Felt Nun pairs a smooth rumble of a vocal delivery with a menacing, almost gothic beat that reminds me of the more underground stuff I was listening to around the time I first got into the music I mentioned in the previous blurb. “Roll over, play dead, wreck for the ‘gram – some of they other tricks. I sit back and watch all the rumors they be running with. All who been involved won’t call it off but it’ll never quit. Broke my Granny’s heart, she say her boy done let the devil in.”
  • Mary Bragg, “The Lonely Persistence of Time” – Singer-songwriter Mary Bragg drills down into an existential loneliness on her self-titled fourth record and it’s exactly the record I want in my headphones as I walk through streets covered in wet leaves. Soulful and sumptuous, with her voice and guitar perfectly set up by the rhythm section of Jordan Perlson (who also killed me on Becca Stevens and Joel Harrison’s records) and Ryan Madora, and Rich Hinman’s electric and steel guitars (who’s enhanced great records by everyone from Amythyst Kiah to Sara Watkins to k.d. lang). “It’s a quarter to you as I wait for the blue. How do you find another love that defies and colors the lonely persistence of time? I wanna know. Don’t you wanna know?”
  • Angelica Sanchez Trio, “Before Sleep / The Sleeping Lady and the Giant that Watches Over Her” – Talk about a record that punched me in the gut, especially by artists I already loved. Sanchez is one of the most consistently inventive pianists working in and expanding the jazz tradition and this record, Sparkle Beings pairs her with the astonishing rhythm section of Michael Formanek on bass and Billy Hart on drums, to attack a series of surprising selections from the canon and make them wholly their own. Here, Sanchez wrote an interlude to lead into the Duke Ellington classic for the record closer and, together, they capture the majesty, power, and delicateness of the original while shining powerful new light through it.
  • Redman/Mehldau/McBride/Blade, “Ship to Shore” – Anybody within 5-10 years of my age with even a passing interest in jazz got turned around by the quartet of tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade. Those records blew my mind in High School and I can only imagine the punch they would have packed for someone seeing that band live. I still check for each of their records 25 years later – the first time Anne and I took her Mom to New York, maybe my favorite memory was taking her to see Redman at the Vanguard. I’m happy to report that the second reunion album, LongGone maybe even improves on Round Again. This sumptuous slow blues is everything I’m looking for from a certain kind of jazz and, like the last few, I think these three tracks in conjunction form kind of a prayer for a new day. Thank you all for reading this; I love you.