I listened to a LOT of music this year. Maybe that’s true every year, but this time around I spreadsheeted up (to keep track on various levels) and the stats say that I averaged about 8 full albums and 6-7 more partial albums each week. Hundreds of these were marked as warranting attention, so even with the passing mentions I’ll make below of albums not on the “short list,” it still represents a small percentage of the music I thought was really good this year. I make no claim that any of these are objectively better than other music that came out this year and indeed am apt to take offense at anyone presumptuous to claim that they know what the “best” music of the year was, especially insofar as one acknowledges the impossibility of getting anywhere close to listening to all the worthy recordings released in a year. These are some that I found particularly compelling, put forth in no particular order. Note that, as per my general protocol, I omitted projects in which I was substantially involved personally. This year that includes the very cool debut, eponymous EP by Doggerland (on which I played keyboards) as well as my own duo album (alongside Henry Lugo), “Alter Ego.” Personal pride notwithstanding, that’s not the purpose of this list.
1 ) Bonnie Raitt: “Just Like That”
Most of us should be so lucky as to ever produce work as soulful as the worst music Bonnie Raitt has ever released, so I would have been excited for this record no matter what. I was, however, only semi-prepared for it to be one of the most potent records of her career. The songs are gorgeous and the band (featuring an unprecedented amount of space for the keyboards, courtesy of Glenn Patscha) is as polished as you’d expect. In a year where a lot of good music was released by longtime vets in their 70s or beyond (including a heavy new one from octogenarian Tom Zé and a fun Sun Ra Arkestra record prominently featuring the ageless Marshall Allen, 97 at the time of that recording), this one knocked my socks off.
2 ) Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf: “Nearness”
There were a number of duo albums I particularly enjoyed this year, some with the same duo throughout the album (Orrin Evans/Kevin Eubanks, Tony Davis & Jamile, Hilario Duran & David Virelles) and some with a single artist duetting with a variety of guests (Raul Midon, Claudia Acuna). I have found myself returning over and over to this extraordinary set of performances, as Allison and Carmen take these gorgeous compositions and sound like a full band (and, more importantly, a great one) without ever overdoing it.
3 ) Shemekia Copeland: “Done Come Too Far”
Among the blues albums that particularly stood out to me this year (including releases by Sugaray Rayford, Larry McCray, Tinsley Ellis) I was especially moved by this wide-ranging album, as Shemekia not only sings the heck out of one tune after another (which is not at all surprising) but packs the album full of original songs ranging from light-hearted fun to searing portraits of suffering and injustice (which is also not surprising given her track record but maybe gets less attention that it should).
4 ) Carmen Lundy: “Fade to Black”
Most years I would have a really hard time winnowing down my favorite jazz vocal records, especially given the wonderful work released in 2022 by Roxana Amed, Somi, Kim Nalley, and others. Carmen Lundy’s new record, meanwhile, just went straight for my jugular – it’s probably my favorite jazz vocal record of this millennium so far, with an amazing band and powerhouse vocals serving a diverse, hip, and moving assortment of her original songs.
5 ) Dave Stryker: “As We Are”
This was a good year for records that combined chamber string ensembles with small jazz groups/soloists, with moving albums in that vein by Mary Halvorson, Stratøs, and Rufus Reid among them. This one, featuring arrangements (as well as gorgeous piano work) by Julian Shore, offers a masterclass in how these elements can be balanced.
6 ) Oumou Sangaré: “Timbuktu”
I listened to a fair amount of African music this year, and was really into the new albums by Malian singer Rokia Koné (in collaboration with Irishman Jacknife Lee) and Rwandan group The Good Ones. Atop that list is this soulful, hard-grooving album by another Malian singer and social commentator. I, of course, do not speak the Wassoulou language, but the emotional potency of this record is intense all the same.
7 ) Todd Marcus: “In the Valley”
My “short” list of mid-sized jazz ensemble (loosely defined here as bigger than quintet and smaller than big band) records in 2022 got pretty big, with the extra-short version including new records by Brian Landrus and Marshall Gilkes and multiple albums by Steven Bernstein. Todd Marcus expands his already substantial track record with the pen and the bass clarinet on this brilliantly-conceived exploration of his Egyptian heritage, brought to fruition to a comparable degree of brilliance by his all-star ensemble.
8 ) Martin Bejerano: “#CUBANAMERICAN”
Based on his heritage, it’s interesting to me that most of my encounters with the music of pianist Martin Bejerano have been in the context of straight-ahead modern jazz (particularly in the small groups of Roy Haynes and Russell Malone). In addition to his and his trio’s contributions to the aforementioned-in-passing Roxana Amed record, this new record is fascinating from the standpoint of cultural exploration, and his playing, composing, and arranging are just stunning. There are many other Latin jazz (such as it were) records I wish I had room to include, including the new ones by Miguel Zenon, Duduka de Fonseca, Alex “Apolo” Ayala, and Dafnis Prieto.
9 ) Curha: “III”
There were a number of standout solo records this year, including similarly brilliant though conceptually rather different albums by vibraphonist Chris Dingman and trombonist Joe Fiedler. This album isn’t a solo record per se, in that it’s orchestrationally somewhat elaborate, but save for two guest appearances it’s the work of one man, composer and multi-instrumentalist Curtis Hasselbring. If you told me I’d be this entranced by a record that sounds like the spawn of a dinner party hosted by Roswell Rudd where the guest list included Egberto Gismonti, Frank Zappa, Esquivel, and Andy Partridge . . . well, that’s a trick, because I’d suspect before the needle dropped that it would be some smile-inducing work by Curtis.
10 ) Gregory Tardy: “Sufficient Grace”
Though not a religious person, per se, I tend to be moved by a lot of sacred music, this year including a varied array of albums from Mark Giuliana’s quartet exploring his compositions inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh to the recording by the deceased itinerant preacher Pastor Champion. Saxophonist/composer Gregory Tardy (who plays on the Todd Marcus album above and who drew perhaps the most attention this year for his contribution to the new Bill Frisell record) has been putting out consistently beautiful, religiously-inspired instrumental jazz for years, and I only hope the broader jazz public (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron) eventually catches up to what a gift he is to the music.
11 ) Caili O’Doherty: “Quarantine Dream”
Not atypically, there were a lot of small-group jazz albums that moved me this year, including trio records by Gary Versace, Taurey Butler, and Aaron Parks and quartet recordings by Anat Cohen, Dezron Douglas, and Rebecca Coupe Franks. Pianist/composer Caili O’Doherty finally got to release this repeatedly-delayed (thanks, pandemic) session, with drummer Cory Cox and bassist Tamir Shmerling rounding out the trio on some tracks and being augmented on others by the presence of saxophonist Nicole Glover. This soulful record is at times burnin’ and at times tender, and it was well worth the wait.
12 ) PubliQuartet: “What Is American”
Though I won’t claim that a large percentage of my listening involves “classical” music (in quotes given the complications surrounding what that term means to different people), it’s still part of my diet. There were a number of albums that stood out to me this year, particularly some that were both culturally and musically earnest in exploring the world beyond the European male composers of yester-century. Angel Gil-Ordonez’s PostClassical Ensemble and Osiris Molina both put out lovely records exploring Latin-American composers, for example. At the top of my kept-going-back-to-it list was this diverse album by the string ensemble PubliQuartet, with compositions by a diverse range of artists, from Rhiannon Giddens to Roscoe Mitchell.
13 ) Brian Jackson: “This Is Brian Jackson”
The distinction between “R&B” and “hip-hop” in contemporary music is rather fluid, as evidenced this year by wonderful albums at that nexus by Robert Glasper, Jamison Ross, Kendrick Lamar, and Samora Pinderhuges. Before hip-hop was even a thing, of course, there was the work that Gil Scott-Heron did with the unjustly less-heralded keyboard wizard, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Brian Jackson, who finally got at least a piece of his rightful place in the spotlight with the 2022 release of this album, including both new music and some long-shelved recordings from the archives.
14 ) Kris Allen: “June”
Is it wrong to place this deeply expressive new album by saxophonist/composer Kris Allen in the context of other music representing the Hartford jazz ecosystem? Such as pointing out the presence of drummer Jonathan Barber, who put out his own wonderful record this year with his Vision Ahead group? Or the fact that they both play on the lovely new work by Matt Dwonszyk? I could go on and on, but you get the idea, and if the answer was “yes it is wrong,” then sorry, it’s too late.
15 ) The Gathering: “Healing Suite”
Dating back to my college years, I’ve always had a soft spot for the intersection of jazz and spoken word, at least on the comparatively rare occasions that it’s done well. This year there were several lovely examples of this, from Keith Lamar’s striking words from prison (with a variety of musical collaborators) to the incendiary recitations of Fred Moten (alongside Brandon Lopez and Gerald Cleaver) to the poetic work of Nikki Giovanni in collaboration with saxophonist/composer/bandleader Javon Jackson. This album by The Gathering (an assemblage of Los Angeles-based artists to whom I was embarrassingly oblivious until this year) combines instrumental, vocal, and spoken word performances with striking potency on all fronts.
16 ) Stephen Peter Rodgers: “Speck on a Clover”
“Singer-songwriter” is a pretty broad term. Some of the music elsewhere on this list fits the bill, and there were a good many really moving albums released this year by singer-songwriters, including those to whom I’ve been listening to for years (Loudon Wainwright III, Michael Franti) and those for whom I’m comparatively new to the party (Natalie Hamilton, Madison Cunningham). I’ve been a fan of Steven Peter Rodgers’s songwriting and performing style since the early ‘90s when I was lucky enough for my high school rock band to share the bill with his group (what would evolve into Mighty Purple) on a couple occasions and would go check them out on many other occasions. His new album is disarmingly intimate and candid – aside from the songs being clever and catchy, it sounds as if he’s singing right to you and doing so with a bracing honesty that isn’t always comfortable but is always nourishing.
17 ) Zack Rosen: “Circles”
There were some moving posthumous releases in 2022, including the late guitarist Vic Juris’s duet album with his musical/life partner Kate Baker, as well as a laconic country album by Dr. John. For me, though, there is no competition on that front, given the release of this four-song EP by my friend and former student Zack Rosen, who left some idiosyncratic yet universally relatable songs behind when he departed in 2019. This serves as both a meaningful tribute to his extraordinary musical mind and as an appetite-whetting for a forthcoming full album of him performing his songs with an impressive cast of musicians.
18 ) Janis Ian: “The Light at the End of the Line”
By contrast, deliberate “swan song” albums are tricky and comparatively infrequent because it’s not all that common for someone to declare that they are done recording and releasing music while still ostensibly well enough to have a choice in the matter (though I understand that some recent throat woes have made that last part less applicable in this case). With respect to some of the other farewell-saying artists this year (Midnight Oil being a standout example for me personally), the prize here goes (sorry Daddy Yankee) to folk/songwriting icon Janis Ian. This music is bracingly emotional, endearingly literate, and gorgeously performed – not only does this represent going out on a (proverbial) high note, this is probably my favorite album of her long career. Extra bonus here is the epic studio recording of her Covid-era feel-better anthem “Better Times Will Come,” the rare song of comfort that belongs alongside the true classics in that vein (“Lean On Me,” “I Can See Clearly Now,” “O-o-oh Child,” etc).
19 ) Emily Clark: “Threadbare”
I heard a lot of debut albums this year and have a particular soft spot for folks making their maiden voyage of releasing music under their own names. Some of the year’s compelling debuts came from artists with whom I’ve been familiar for years (bassist/composer Timothy Norton, pianist/composer Darren Litzie, multi-instrumentalist and longtime Red Baraat member Sonny Singh) while others were more on the tangents of my consciousness until 2022 (drummer Ryan Sands, saxophonist Julieta Eugenio) or totally unknown to me (singer/songwriters Danielle Ponder and Santino Tomasetti). In the latter category, I was oblivious to the work of singer/songwriter Emily Clark until I was recently turned on to her music through mutual friend/collaborator Erica von Kleist, one of the performers on Emily’s debut recording. If I didn’t get enough Bonnie Raitt or Tedeschi-Trucks Band (4 albums? that’s all?) this year, Emily’s gritty, blues-infused Americana provided a wonderful added (and I dare say qualitatively comparable) dose. And speaking of gritty, she recently recovered from significant brain surgery (is there insignificant brain surgery a thing?) so if you dig this recording as much as I do, you might consider donating to the GoFundMe for her recovery.
20 ) Charles Stepney: “Step on Step”
Every year we can reasonably expect that archived and seldom (or never) heard music will come out and I find that a gift. This year that included the amazing music on the “Summer of Soul” soundtrack as well as having my eyes opened to Irma Thomas I hadn’t heard, alternate takes from John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” record, and a 1960s live show by Elvin Jones and his band. This album by Charles Stepney was a particular revelation – many folks have heard his contributions to music by Minnie Riperton, Ramsey Lewis, and (most likely) Earth, Wind and Fire without necessarily knowing his name, and I was blown away by this beautiful juxtaposition of slick 1970s demos from his home studio with commentary by the daughters by whom he is survived.
Bonus round: 10 wonderful singles and/or tracks from albums not already mentioned here:
West End Blend “The Workout”
Eddie Vedder “Invincible”
Lyle Lovett “Pants Is Overrated”
Tomas Fujiwara “For Alan” (featuring Gerald Cleaver)
Hegazy “Oil and Water”
Sharp Radway “I’m Pulling Through” (featuring Shenel Johns)
Olivia K and the Parkers “Melanin”
Immanuel Wilkins “Lift”
Amber Mark “Darkside”
Chuck D with Nabaté Isles “The Amazing Willie Mays”