Albums of the year by

William Parker - Universal Tonality

Favorite track: Cloud Texture (death has died today)
Release date: 30 Sep 2022 | Bandcamp

Universal tonality—a pancultural musical experiment in “breathing together”—may just be the linchpin of bassist/multi-instrumentalist, composer, griot William Parker’s kaleidoscopic career. Though performed 20 years ago on December 14, 2002, this historic recording takes a keystone position atop the masonry of new and archival releases we’ve had from Parker these last few decades, synthesizing many styles he’s known for, from post-Coltrane modal/out jazz to cabaret, spoken word, R&B, gutbucket, world folk, and avant-garde. Parker’s genius rests on his ultimate trust in the human spirit as a renewable resource, which this special 16-member ensemble of musical familiars repays with endless permutations of instinctual union. The score and the seasons may change unexpectedly but, as Leena Conquest emphatically declares through her magisterial vocal performance of Parker’s poetry, “The only real truth is that which is inside us.” Monumental.

Artificial Brain - Artificial Brain

Favorite track: Celestial Cyst
Release date: 03 Jun 2022 | Bandcamp

Time will tell whether this album crowns or merely concludes the inaugural Arty B trilogy, but a juggernaut brooks no opposition. Revered for jaw-dropping technicality and restive experimentation, here pinnacle Artificial Brain couple deft arrangement with poignant lyricism to produce their most “accessible” album yet—depending on one’s onboard processor speed. The experience is awash in thick climactic melancholy as always, only intensified by Uncle Will’s finale vocal performances. His gutturals are rendered so broad and immediate on cuts like “Celestial Cyst” and “The Last Words of the Wobbling Sun” it’s painfully cathartic. What a gift! Read the lyrics. All heart.

Sarattma - Escape Velocity

Favorite track: Twilight Realm of Imaginary Notes
Release date: 12 Aug 2022 | Bandcamp

Sara Neidorf and Matt Hollenberg are doing it themselves, and they’re doing it right. Drawing from wide palettes, the drums & guitars duo orchestrate a series of episodic journeys to the further reaches of inner and outer space, no destination—metal, jazz, fusion, progressive, or symphonic—pre-charted or ruled out. These songs are replete with celebration and gratitude, despite having been conceived in response to great personal loss and collective pain, and taken together they represent an organic exercise in imaginative healing sorely needed this year. Escape Velocity exceeded all my expectations, and it made me feel seen. (And Caroline Harrison’s cover art smokes so well . . . it must be illegal in all states.) The solar heart of my year.

Titan to Tachyons - Vonals

Favorite track: Wax Hypnotic
Release date: 16 Sep 2022 | Bandcamp

Warped and wobbly, squishy and sidereal, disintegrative and dizzying, Titan to Tachyons is an audacious auditory experience. Helmed by guitarist Sally Gates, this crack collective of in-demand scene-hoppers navigates through a set of six inside-out compositions that transform with pointillist precision and contrapuntal clarity. When this album is spinning, you may in fact be hearing things, so don’t be surprised if, when you listen, Titans listens back—and around and around we go. Vonals stretches the warp and woof of sonic territory first explored on the debut Cactides, but with a jazz-forward development that proves irresistible. Just plain funky fun.

Mary Halvorson - Amaryllis / Belladonna

Favorite track: Flying Song
Release date: 13 May 2022 | Bandcamp

Am I cheating? Technically, but these albums are companions, like A & B. While Amaryllis features a unique sextet of guitar, vibraphone, trombone, trumpet, drums, and bass accompanied at times by a string quartet, Belladonna centers Halvorson’s guitar amidst the chamber musings of the Mivos Quartet as counterpoint. If forced to choose, the more intimate, witchy Belladonna gets my nod—no shade thrown on wiry, glowing Amaryllis. This outing equally spotlights Halvorson’s compositional acumen and boundary-pushing performance style. Fans of Halvorson’s esoteric sound and inventive phrasing will be delighted, but the pitch-modulated dramatics always flourish through songs, which blossom with delicately patterned bounty. Entrancing.

Further recommendations

You may call this my widdershins list.

  1. Monumental? More an impossible exercise in memorial, Scarcity’s Aveilut (The Flenser)—true to its name—addresses grief, and the contrary demands of atonement and letting go, with philosophical rigor. The smartest therapeutic approach: play it loud, bathing in the full-spectral tidal forces of Brendon Randall-Myers’ orchestration; read the lyrics, enwrapped in Doug Moore’s emotive performance. Time to face the music.

  2. I’ve learned this about myself: I need an evocative death metal album to lean on through the seasons. This year, Cosmic Putrefaction, Crepuscular Dirge for the Blessed Ones (Profound Lore Records) provided that succor. Rich, harmonically interesting chordal riffs; undeniable grooves regardless of time signature; lush architectural melodic motifs; sky cathedrals of synth; Dante: Gabriele Gramaglia is on fire! Read the lyrics. All heart.

  3. Sometimes I turn to the moon: as a wish or a mirror; as a cup for drowning my sorrows or a bier for laying down my burden. Quite like that, unexpected but with compassion, Veldune, Veldune (Nightfloat Recordings) came into my life to help me through the changes. Reflective, habit-forming, multiphasic: it’s a vibe. The lunar heart of my year.

  4. I love bands within a band. The second outing for this inventive collective, Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double, March (Firehouse 12 Records) pairs two highest-caliber drums-guitar-trumpet trios in a dance of mirrored tension and resolve. This is hard work, but it’s ok to have a little fun while doing it. Stand together, be joyful, and march!

  5. Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant returns after 18 years sounding refreshingly different. Featuring the same lineup of battle-tested veterans—Dunn (bass), Mary Halvorson (guitar), and Ches Smith (drums, percussion)—avec Folie à Quatre, a talent-shot chamber quartet of violins, clarinets, cello, and flutes, Séances (Pyroclastic Records) infuses ritual with constant surprise. The through-composed song structures never go where you expect, and the oddball production puzzles and fascinates. Nerds rejoice: the album arrives with a homework assignment on the ecstatic hijinks of 18th-century French Christian mystics, Les Convulsionnaires. Mesmerizing.