Hi everyone, here are the final ten entries in my best albums of the year extravaganza. For 25 more helpful recommendations, see part 1 of the piece: http://www.you-phoria.com/Blog/2023/January/the-best-albums-of-2022-part-1
Moor Mother, JAZZ CODES
I listen to Moor Mother and I get closer to understanding how a human being could be swayed by a preacher. As this species continues its endless vomit of words, poignant simplicity becomes a mirage; as a poet, Camae Ayewa has the best sense for when to indulge. This year people seemed a little higher on her album with 700Bliss (her collaborative project with DJ Haram), NOTHING TO DECLARE, which is also great! JAZZ CODES is the one I reach for more, though. You could certainly say it’s more accessible, remarkably pleasant even; it’s still a winning showcase of Ayewa’s versatility and features a myriad of choice collaborators that help to keep things bouncing along even though it’s a downtempo journey. To me it carries right onward from last year’s fantastic BLACK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AIR, only extra chill this time around, which is great ‘cause when I heard “Tarot” on ENCYCLOPEDIA I thought ‘give me a whole ALBUM like this!’ JAZZ CODES is much more varied than THAT of course but you hear the echoes certainly in “Golden Lady” and “Arms Save” and “Meditation Rag”, the last an entrancing jazz excursion buffeting Ayewa’s spoken-word tribute to a wide array of legends. That’s the whole album, though, a testament to the power of jazz and, if we take it further, music itself. And alongside the tributes and what you might call the activist poetry you’ll find deeply personal pieces like “Ode To Mary” and “Blues Away”, both of which are liable to reach if not stab right into your heart. Even lacking the vocal intensity you’ll hear in some of Moor Mother’s other projects, JAZZ CODES cuts deep.
Cate Le Bon, POMPEII
Upon first listen, this type of minimal, lo-fi synthpop can come off as so subdued as to be droll. That’s just the musical climate we’re in, though; as the industry’s façade of legitimacy crumbles, the sanctity of production values crumbles with it, and there’s no use clinging to the scraps any longer where criticism is concerned. It creeps closer and closer to the mainstream, the lifting of the veil of professionalism. Within the next decade it may well become impossible to buy oneself a grammy any more. (It’ll still be super easy to buy an oscar though.) Okay fine, this is just the fantasy of a relatively fringey middle-aged codger. My point is that POMPEII, a relatively quiet, slow, often deadpan record, bowled me over the first time I heard it, and it was months later before I even delved into the lyrics in earnest. Since that happened, POMPEII has been cemented in as one of the defining albums of 2022 for me. ‘I gotta go back’ (I always say to myself) ‘and listen to her earlier stuff again’ and then time marches on, but with Cate Le Bon it might actually happen because I did not like her music when I first came across it and I wonder who between her and me has changed more. Whatever the case, POMPEII feels more immediate and current than her previous albums, the songwriting more dynamic, the lyrics reflective at least somewhat of things we’re all going through. When she sings “Every fear that I have/I send it to Pompeii” I wonder, is there any other way to get through this?
Joe Rainey, NIINETA
One way in which the cultural outreach aspect of the Eaux Claires festivals continues to resonate: an album like this ever getting made and celebrated by the press. Thanks Uncle Justin! This record is by no means an attempt to appropriate indigenous American music for a mainstream audience; producer/accompanist Andrew Broder is known for his esoteric approach whether it’s via rock music or beats or straight-up noise, making for an incredibly thought-provoking and emotive collaboration with powwow singer Joe Rainey. This fusion of ancient and modern sounds may seem like a ridiculous idea but I can tell you what I immediately thought of when I first heard NIINETA and it turns out it’s what inspired the collaboration in the first place! (https://daily.bandcamp.com/features/joe-rainey-niineta-interview?utm_source=notification) The above piece was a fun list-season discovery; the album has been a yearlong process of seeping into my soul. Perhaps just enough truth has poked through the colonialist veil over the years; this music doesn’t feel at all beyond or outside my life experience. It may not be pop music, yet over time as the melodies and rhythms take on more of their own distinct character as they become more familiar, they tell a rich tale that’s both urgent and soothing. The lesson, I think, is that although things seem dire, it is pressing that we learn to control our focus and access stillness within, if there’s any hope of moving forward. Everybody knows the urgency makes it harder; still it must be done.
Dillon Hallen had already left an indelible mark on the Milwaukee music scene, but I’m not sure he had found the most natural music for his voice until Convert was born. If you always dug some ‘80s danceable goth/deathrock/post-punk but wished there was a band that went a little harder without tumbling over into industrial or something, you now have it. Convert is huge on atmosphere, huge on rhythms and riffs, fueled by righteous anger and ought to really be steamrolling the country right now, goddammit. And yes I was just praising IDLES in my last piece but people SAVES blows away all of IDLES’ albums by a mile, are you kidding me? They’re like the Offspring to Convert’s Op Ivy (or something), no offense! The songs feel instantly iconic; I know part of that is (grrrr) nostalgia, but between Hallen’s delivery and the band’s combination of creepy synths and aggressive guitars, Convert is its own thing. Every song on SAVES should leave you shaking.
Sudan Archives, NATURAL BROWN PROM QUEEN
This one has taken forever to process! It felt initially like such a departure from ATHENA (2019), which had stuck in my memory for its sultry low-key vibe as well as its copious violin accompaniment. It occurs to me now that ATHENA’s cover art and the novelty of the violin-based R&B record was almost a trap, for me as a listener and/or for Sudan Archives (aka Brittney Parks) as an artist. As cool as that album was, I’m glad we didn’t get caught in that trap. For NATURAL BROWN PROM QUEEN, she has moved in a more upbeat, traditional R&B direction but also expanded her overall sound in a multitude of directions. There’s still violin all over the place; it’s simply not always recognizable immediately as such. While ATHENA was a one-woman show, NBPQ features a more typical R&B village of writers, performers and producers (most prominently Parks’ manager, Ben Dickey, “…an American actor and musician best known for playing Blaze Foley in the 2018 biographical drama BLAZE” –Wikipedia), all masterminded by Parks, resulting in a cinematic overall work that you might never stop noticing new cool things about. Sudan Archives’ growth spurt in terms of ambition and creativity to match is almost on the scale of Kendrick’s prior to TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY; the difference is that Kendrick went darker whereas Parks went in more of a party direction. The other thing that threw me off I realized listening back to ATHENA: Parks’ singing was rather forgettable. On NBPQ she almost sounds like a different person, arguably a bunch of ‘em. I’d call this an explosive blossoming of a major artist and for the next decade or so look out world.
Sexual Jeremy, THE REAL SEXUAL JEREMY
As I’ve mentioned before, math rock never goes out of style. In the ‘90s I ate it up, the perfect outlet for an incurable proghead identifying as a punk. It was novel to me then—didn’t know they MADE punk with embellishments. Nowadays, for the music to feel challenging, which was always a big part of the allure, a math rock band has to try harder. Sexual Jeremy manages the feat easily. With an almost Bunglesque combination of affection and scorn, the band toys with various stripes of rock music in deliberately obnoxious ways. You’d have earnest grooves, for instance, in “Diamonds”, if it weren’t for the nagging dissonant guitar stabs. Laughter is always a perfectly suitable reaction to these interludes, and it might be a natural impulse when you hear some of Cody Cantu’s words as well, which remind me at times of Les Claypool in deadpan stream-of-consciousness mode. Is he being relatable, or scoffing at the mundane? The point is to make you wonder if you’re supposed to laugh, and if you think about it too long, Sexual Jeremy pummels you with the next noisy breakdown. Cantu’s vocal delivery is amelodic and the music is too, sometimes. I couldn’t say for sure how much of it is strictly composed; the last couple minutes of “The Quick Trip”, for example, feel almost like free jazz, and the suspense could give a person a neck cramp if they’re not careful. It’s one of the three songs on THE REAL SEXUAL JEREMY that go on for more than seven minutes and are over too quickly (even though the minute-twenty-five pretend-metal tune “Hell And Suck” might be my favorite track). It says something about a band’s compositional ability when every quiet moment amounts to almost unbearable tension, ESPECIALLY the one that ends the dang album! This is the indescribable agony of waiting for closure, which does not exist. If you just have the album on while you’re doing other things, you might wind up with the impression that it was busy and crowded. When you listen to it with focus, you realize how clear and intentional each vibration is. Guitar, guitar, bass guitar, drums. Shouldn’t I be sick of this by now?
You always have it in your head that a new Sigh album is going to be more extreme, more ridiculous, more exhausting than the last. Partially their fault! This condition led me to feeling underwhelmed the first time I heard SHIKI. It’s still full-on theatrics, only this time around the chances of, hmm, giving an average person an instant headache? are much lower than usual. The gnarly RELATIVE simplicity of the songs was like a reverse culture shock at first. Throughout the album there are teases, as if we’re about to be led into a typical Sigh insanity spiral; the effect as a fan is that they’re exercising colossal restraint, adding to the drama of the album all the more even with successive listens. Nothing’s overbearing. Hardly anything could even be considered show-offy. I look around at the metal lists this year and I’m amazed that eclecticism is so prized nowadays; it’s as if ‘prog’ has almost become a requirement for consideration. Naturally there will always be ‘purists’ in metal pushing back against this tendency, and it’s not hard to draw parallels with almost any aspect of society you care to. Blending genres used to be a fringe pursuit in metal and now it’s taking over. You’re damn right it’s the moment for Sigh to celebrate in triumph, having been at this much longer than most of ‘em. SHIKI is Sigh coughing up blood in their sleep, effortless and terrifying.
Zola Jesus, ARKHON
People used to a chilling, electronic-leaning Zola Jesus might be taken aback by the earthy pulse of “Lost”, the opening track on ARKHON. They forget that ALL of this comes from the earth. We’re not creating anything except what the earth makes possible, and although this project has always been shrouded in witchy tones, the resulting music throughout the years has often come off as detached and digitized, whether in an ironic sense or not. ARKHON is still awash in purely synthetic sounds for much of its runtime, but a song like “Into The Wild” though essentially not physically hammered out by humans approaches the point of Björk or Sophie where the ones and zeroes coalesce into extensions of the artist’s own spirit at times. With every subsequent listen I’m blown away by the multitude of sounds I pick up on; it was the melodies that grabbed me from the beginning. But these songs don’t necessarily stay in the zones they begin in. The incredible thing is how the album has such an overriding flow that it doesn’t come off as proggy or experimental; every turn feels natural no matter how sharp. Then you have these incredible vocal showcases like “Dead And Gone” and “Desire” and “Efemra”, reminding us of entire directions Nika Danilova could’ve gone in, might still go in. But the one I usually play on the air is “Sewn”, this is Ulver-caliber post-everything soul-expulsion of the highest order. Between this and “The Fall” and everything else I’ve mentioned, I think ARKHON stacks up as my favorite Zola Jesus album ever.
Quelle Chris, DEATHFAME
This album dropped the same day as Kendrick’s; no fair! I spent a good week and a half with the Kendrick but I had to force myself. I see he’s still feeling like nobody’s praying for him; is that gonna be his whole thing now? I do appreciate his efforts at psychoanalyzing huge swaths of humans; I hope it helps. We all do it eh? Whereas Quelle Chris is a little more straightforward in terms of lyrics, a little less BLAAAHGHAGAGWAAOOOW with his music, and to the average person, a lot realer. He starts DEATHFAME out with the simplest of sentiments, the gratitude for being alive, then immediately cuts it with the title of the song, “Life Ain’t Always Living”. You could find this sentiment in a zillion popular songs across the past century; for some reason until I heard this one I always took it as an us-v-them argument, whereas Chris presents it as an ambiguous “sometimes” that can apply to everybody. Rolled into a lot of casual cues and a pleasant summery beat, it reminded me that there were whole seasons of my life that I thought I was living but was actually just surviving. The titular theme of the record may strike you as a flip side to this coin, that being as present as possible in this moment does not include thoughts of an enduring legacy, of anything that might happen after the body perishes. But a legacy is just a sum of impressions from the infinite now; is it more important to be present, or to anticipate? Is it really the fame that endures, or is it only the love? And via his usual cocktail of self-deprecation and braggadocio, delivered as if we’re sitting on a ratty couch with sunlight poking through a thick haze, QC ponders this shit. Sometimes I come away from it a little dazed; the production is both psychedelic and grounded, a dense crossroads, yet Chris does not lack ambition for a second. Usually, though, when it’s over I just want to start it over. I don’t know a lot about his background but he at least has hung out with folks who had to scrape and grind and suddenly it makes me wonder if Kendrick ever WORKED a day in his life. As I alluded to earlier, this is supposed to be the nature of fandom, relating to one artist for a while and drifting away, you don’t abandon but you don’t have to twist yourself up to keep jiving. Give it time, one of you will probably come around. You can make it about anything you like; remember you don’t KNOW these people. I think about INNOCENT COUNTRY, frikkin eight years old already, and how back then Quelle was just a goofy fun time, a musical sitcom for painting my kitchen, it wasn’t THAT long ago. And I never have drifted away yet.
Kae Tempest, THE LINE IS A CURVE
There are days when I fear for the future of the value of words themselves. On those days I try to turn to Kae Tempest. And then I know, if heard by the right person at the right time, any of these words could be a lifeline. What they have done with this release is take the personal excursions of the seven different characters on 2016’s LET THEM EAT CHAOS a step further, telling their own story instead, working through things from the first person rather than through imaginary narratives. Not to suggest that the album should be taken literally; that’s not for me to say. The stories and lessons should still be broadly relatable; if they’re not, you may need to get out and experience some more things. For me this album is about the way your past can always bear down on you unexpectedly and fighting against being defined by it. Fighting to be comfortable with as much change as you can handle because no matter how well you think you see the way, the endpoint of all this is always out of view. As a return to somewhat more conventional songwriting, it doesn’t stack up as a fierce cohesive manifesto like CHAOS, but in making the songs so personal, Kae’s delivery strikes with more immediacy than ever before; I think of “I Saw Light” and “Grace” big time and especially “Don’t You Ever”—the way they haltingly spit “This does not cancel all that out” is not aggressive but it completely floors me every time, and after this song comes “These Are The Days”, one of the all-time greatest pick-yourself-up-off-the-floor songs I have ever heard. (Another great one is three songs later, “Move”, a not-really-but-maybe-sorta companion-in-spirit piece to Open Mike Eagle’s “I’ll Fight You”.) I need to be playing this song daily until I believe it, I want it to be my truth as surely as Kae does (and that goes double for “Grace”!!). And then comes my favorite song on the record, “Smoke”. “My mother within me making nothing but noise” is still a hard line for me to swallow. That’s how Kae works; rather than a harrowing expression of pains I can’t imagine, which they could easily do I’m sure, THE LINE IS A CURVE is a complex expression of solidarity. This is what every Kae Tempest song ever is really about. They continue to plead with their loved ones, which are all of us, to wake up, and love more.
THE BUNGLE REPORT
The best Bungle news we have is that I didn’t in fact see the LAST Mr. Bungle show! The band returned to the stage in South America just last month (I did a whole radio show about it! You can listen to it here: https://wmsearchive.blob.core.windows.net/2022/12/12-08-2022-18-00.mp3 ) and by all accounts they remain the best band on the planet. I’m not getting my hopes up; this RAGING WRATH OF THE EASTER BUNNY phase will soon have run its course without a doubt, and beyond it, who knows. As always, Mike and Trey and Trevor will surprise and confound us, even if it means ending Mr. Bungle forever. Shout out to Patton for prioritizing his health and cancelling stuff when it was needed. Shout out to Andreas and Derrick from Sepultura for joining Bungle onstage to do “Territory” in Chile and Brasil. This whole thing was a fantastic idea.
Otherwise, although I like to keep tabs on Eyvind Kang, perhaps never an official member of Mr. Bungle but certainly integral to CALIFORNIA and especially to the early incarnations of Secret Chiefs 3, the usually prolific violist did not appear on any 2022 releases that I know of. Odd.
Danny Heifetz’s lone appearance on record this year was a single song on the long-awaited debut full-length by High Castle Teleorkestra, a project that features ex-Bungler Bär McKinnon as a member as well as past/potential future Secret Chief 3 Tim Smolens (nobody technically leaves that band). The album, THE EGG THAT NEVER OPENED, is perhaps the best example we have of a group carrying on in a similar tradition to where Bungle was at with CALIFORNIA, mashing together all stripes of surf rock with eastern European modes and periodic ejaculations of other genres throughout. It is, arguably, more of an over-wrought tribute than a legitimate furthering of the Bungle spirit, but it provides more than enough genuine thrills for fans of that musical philosophy.
As far as the core three (Theo Lengyel remains MIA since about 1998), Mike’s Ipecac label released the new Dead Cross record, II, which he of course also sings on, and it has some great songs but the production leaves a lot to be desired. I hope to see this band show us what these songs can really do, live, some time, but even if it doesn’t happen, just having them out in the world is a major victory considering the hardships the guys in this band have endured the past two years.
Trevor has had a year boy howdy. I saw him in like eight different bands at Big Ears Festival in March. In addition he’s featured on at least eleven albums from 2022 and each project has a different bandcamp page—those that are actually streaming anywhere on the internet. Highlights? Two EPs as half of King Dunn, a duo with Buzzo from the Melvins, both of which if you didn’t buy a physical copy immediately when they went onsale, good luck ever hearing ‘em, so I’ll call these PRESUMED highlights based on the one song you can hear on youtube which is amazing. Then there was Trevor’s debut as an official member of Titan To Tachyons, VONALS, a terrific instrumental prog/jazz/metal thing. One disc of John Zorn’s BAGATELLES box set, which I’m still trying to justify buying. His first release with his Trio-Convulsant in 18 years, SÉANCES (avec Folie À Quatre), albeit with a completely new (amazing) lineup. A killer album called EXPANSION with an avant-math-rock trio called Ahleuchatistas. Plus there was this great record he put out last December with Jarvis Earnshaw, HYPNAGOGIA (under the moniker Travis Duo), a very wide-ranging experimental album that’s got its esoteric moments but also plenty to latch onto.
And of course, Trey released three long-awaited Holy Vehm albums HAHAHAHAHA THE TORTURE NEVER STOPS. But surely he’s been WORKING on them? The only thing I can say for sure is that he PERFORMED with Secret Chiefs 3, as an actual trio with (ope) Eyvind Kang and Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, last spring at Harvard University as part of a conference examining the life and work of theologian/philosopher Henry Corbin. Because of course. With any luck a recording of this performance will see the light of day in like thirty years but I’m not counting on it.
Speaking of Secret Chiefs 3, one of the biggest fans of that band I ever knew was a friend of mine named Sam Higgins. We grew apart over the years and I will never know why, because according to a friend of a mutual friend of ours, Sam Higgins died last month. Two decades ago when I was living in Janesville and desperate for a way to not live there any more, Sam agreed to move into a place in Riverwest with me, even though he had only met me a few times, even though I didn’t have a JOB. He then got me hired where he worked, and I began rebuilding my life from that point on. I don’t know what the hell I would’ve done if it hadn’t been for Sam, who has now, according to what I’ve heard, passed away. There was no funeral, no obituary, I can’t even find a death notice. I only met his mother a couple of times and I don’t feel comfortable reaching out to her at a time like this. Maybe some day. So I guess I’ll take their word for it, my friend is dead.
If you are a human being thinking about dying, or if you are a family member of a human being who has died, please take into consideration that there might be other human beings for whom this is important information. Please don’t keep your loved ones’ deaths a secret. Even if the dead person didn’t want a fuss to be made. They’re dead now, they won’t mind, I promise. I know I said there’s no such thing as closure but haven’t we all been through enough? Rest in peace, Sam. I’m sad I’ll never see you again.