Next in my reviews of the year is music. Spotify loves to hit you with statistics at the end of your listening year (November to November is how they calculate it), and this year I am told I listened to 1,158 artists performing 2,832 songs spanning 61 genres, for a total of 20,072 minutes (or just over eight days). Of course I listened to music in other ways – I still buy the occasional CD, though I only went to two concerts this year (Gary Lucas, Bob Dylan). But Spotify is the compelling measure of taste, making it clear how it has opened up worlds of music for anyone willing to explore. I discovered so much this year that I cannot imagine ever being able to discover in any other fashion. Here is some of my favourite listening in 2022, thanks largely to an app.
But… one sad limitation of Spotify is its embedding, which only allows the non-subscriber to hear thirty seconds or so of any track. So I have gone for the full YouTube versions, where these come from the artists’ own channels.
Mary Halvorson, ‘Side Effect’
Early in the year I was convinced that jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas’s exquisite, exploratory Secular Psalms was going to be my new album of the year. Then it was certain to be T-Bone Burnett’s The Invisible Light: Spells, in which America’s foremost producer of traditional music continues to explore new sound frontiers as a recording artist.
Mary Halvorson, ‘Belladonna’
But both were trumped by a pair of recordings, released simultaneously, from guitarist Mary Halvorson: Amaryllis and Belladonna. Each was recorded with the Mivos string quartet, which appears throughout on Belladonna and on some tracks on Amaryllis alongside a more regular line-up of jazz instrumentalists. There is such invention, colour and freshness throughout. Halvorson shows herself to be a fine writer for strings as well as a most modest lead player, since both are ensemble productions in which the guitarist floats in and out, as required. The music is a joy to listen to. I’ve picked a favourite track from each album.
Eliza Gilkyson, ‘Jedediah 1777’
Among past music I discovered for the first time, there was a clear winner – and my most listened-to song of 2022. Eliza Gilkyson is an American folk singer (an inadequate term, but it will have to do). She has been recording thoughtful, lyrical, political songs for over five decades. Her finest album, to these ears, is Paradise Hotel from 2005. It is so tuneful, so beguiling, so skilful in now it sums up times and themes. The standout song is ‘Jedediah 1777’, based upon letters written by a soldier in the American war of independence. Jedediah, who fought at Valley Forge, was an ancestor of the singer. His haunting language of hope and fear could stand for any soldier in any war, and is meant to.
T-Bone Burnett, Jay Bellerose and Keefuws Ciancia, ‘Realities.com’
From the aforementioned T-Bone Burnett’s The Invisible Light: Spells (recorded with Jay Bellerose and Keefuws Ciancia), here’s my new song of the year – if song is what it is. ‘Realities.com’ nails the delusions of the online world in a way that is as funny as it is chilling. There isn’t a tune as such; there aren’t musical instruments as such. But it’s a song written for 2022.
Dee-1, Mannie Fresh, Big Freedia, and Galactic, ‘Act Like You Know’
Galactic are a New Orleans jam band, led by the powerful drumming of Stanton Moore. I’ve have been listening to their smart, funky music for some while now (their 2010 Ya-Ka-May is high on my list of all-time favourite albums). They generally provide backing for guest vocalists, as in this exhilarating number from the soundtrack to a documentary on New Orleans, Take Me to the River. I have no idea who Dee-1, Mannie Fresh and Big Freedia might be, but they are on fire here, one of my most-played and most-danced-to (you wouldn’t want to see) tracks of the year.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny and Peter Gordon, ‘On the Other Hand’
Another discovery for me was American avant garde composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny (1945-2020). Anyone with musical collaborators that include Carla Bley, Laurie Anderson and The Stooges can’t help but be interesting. His musical output is very varied, his masterpiece is the beguiling 1977 album Out of the Blue (a recording years ahead of its time), but my pick is this live concert performance with jazz saxophonist Peter Gordon and his ensemble in 2019. Over twenty minutes of exuberant, catchy, chaotic noise.
Hayden Petigo, ‘Letting Go’
An established favourite is young American guitarist Hayden Petigo, whose music fits comfortably between the sweet and the subversive. His 2022 release Letting Go is well up to standard. Here he is playing the title track live. Mellow, meditative stuff.
Xhosa Cole, ‘Blues Connotation’
Birmingham saxophonost Xhosa Cole is one of the most exciting figures on the much-vaunted new British jazz scene. I find such fun and such urgency in his music. ‘Blues Connotation’, from 2021, has that burst of energy that you find in Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool, as the medium finds a new voice.
Blo, ‘Preacher Man’
The more I listen to the pop music of Africa, which I have done for decades, the more I treasure the inventiveness of what was produced in the 1970s, when its absorption of Western rock music idioms was still at the exploratory stage. Blo was a Nigerian ‘psychedelic funk’ band, formed by musicians who had previously played with Ginger Baker during his African sojourn (the name comes from the members’ initials, Berkeley, Laolu and Odumosu). Their later recordings are slick and not especially distinctive, but earlier forays, such as the jazzy ‘Preacher Man’ (1973), have all the excitement of discovery mixed with skill (oh that bass line).
Josephine Foster, ‘Geyser’
Josephine Foster is another American singer-songwriter discovery for me (Spotify tells me that my most listened-to genre of the year was ‘singer-songwriter’, closely followed by ‘free jazz’). There is an unsettling peculiarity to her quiet songs, characterised by her folksy contralto, some homespun arrangements and dreamy melodies. It’s the music your odd aunt plays in the living room when she’s pretending to be alone. Give your aunt an electric guitar in the hope of confounding her, and something like ‘Geyser’ (from Foster’s 2012 album Blood Rushing) might be the result.
Michael Yonkers, ‘I Knew You’d Remember’
I love the lo-fi sound of Michael Yonkers, another genre-defying American, whose 2010 album Lovely Gold has the air of a free-thinker stumbling across song for the first time and determining to sing for themselves. ‘I Knew You’d Remembered’ is an unadorned song from the subconscious.
Janek Schaefer, ‘Round in Circles’
British avant garde composer Janek Schaefer has all the right ideas for me. It is music that is productively free – it takes best advantage of not being tied down by any preconceptions. Found and manufactured sound, voices and mystery combine to conjure pictures you could never see, only hear.
Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia, ‘Nightwatch’
The British jazz saxophonist Barbara Thompson died this year, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Her band Paraphernalia were one of the headline acts at the 1979 Bracknell Jazz Festival, which I attended, aged eighteen. The filmmaker Mike Dibb made a BBC documentary record of the concert. My mop of blonde hair is just about visible at the end of the film, seated as we were at the back of the tent. I moved on to other kinds of jazz thereafter, but always had a soft spot for her trail-blazing creativity. Here’s a meditative number from 2009. Farewell.