To know me is to know that I’m not a fan of “Best of” lists because of the sheer subjectivity that comes with them. And Lord knows I haven’t heard everything that was released over the year. Add COVID and its side-effects to the mix and things are really thrown for a loop.
That being said, I did hear some quality music in 2021. Allow me a minute to share with you (in no particular order) some records that got and maintained my attention.
DAVE HOLLAND, Another Land. Bassist Dave Holland has been a jazz legend for more than five decades. His trio effort with guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire is a brilliant reminder why. Their interplay is a continuous smoldering burn that never loses control, even if the listener is always on the verge of doing so. Understatement is still a statement, and this album is a master class on how to do it.
BENT KNEE, Frosting. Once again, the Boston sextet shifts musical direction. Once again, I must make the effort to catch up. Once again, I am thrilled by what has taken place. Frosting is one of those records that pays off via repeated listens, as new details reveal themselves with every spin. This is what a classic record should do. COVID forced the band to work more as individuals, as opposed to hashing their songs out together. As a result, each member brings more of their own personality to the table. The results are quite spectacular.
HEDWIG MOLLESTAD TRIO, Ding Dong. You’re Dead. A heavy dose of earth-shaking fusion from a highly innovative band cashing in on its collective influences and what it brings to the group’s already unique sound. The music grooves, stomps, weaves, and floats from one moment to the next, never allowing the listener to get completely comfortable. Lucky us.
KICK THE CAT, Gurgle. My choice for the most fun record I heard this year. The Chicago-based fusion act combines its Zappa, Brand X, jam band, etc. influences to create a sound full of pyrotechnics and death-defying dexterity while never seeming to be full of itself. Listening to this album reminds one why music is such a great pursuit.
KHU.EEX’, WOOch. As great a final statement as one is likely to hear. Driven by the brilliant collision of funk, R&B, and Indigenous American sounds, the Seattle-based band makes the most out of the last studio efforts of keyboard legend Bernie Worrell, who passed away three months after starting this project. Bassist Preston Singletary, saxophonist Skerik, and the rest of the band solidify Bernie’s musical legacy with a passionate effort that must be celebrated again and again and again.
THE WORLD IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND I AM NO LONGER AFRAID TO DIE, Illusory Walls. A gloriously atmospheric Indie record with progressive rock tendencies, played to the hilt by a highly ambitious band. The aggressive guitar work (distorted or not), driving rhythms from the bass and drums, ethereal keyboards and earnest vocals make for a remarkable combination that make even the epic-length tunes seem to pass in the blink of an eye. This is music designed for candles and lava lamps. If “epic indie” isn’t a thing, it is now!
STEPHAN THELEN, Fractal Guitar 2. This album doesn’t pick up where its predecessor left off as much as it takes the information in hand and takes a slight sonic turn, with equally brilliant results. The tunes on this album have a slightly lighter feel with a solid sense of melody mixing in with the mathematical rhythms and floating soundscapes. Listeners can hear this album from a variety of directions, depending on which element they choose to grasp during each song. Highly creative and sonically brilliant.
PRINCE, Welcome 2 America. A marvelous posthumously released album that showed the continued growth of the legendary superstar, who put most of his sex-driven hitmaking aside in order to focus on the issues of the day. Prince shows not only an introspective and thoughtful side as a lyricist, but also the willingness to collaborate with fine young talent in the studio (which he did not always do). Bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman give the music precisely what it needs in terms of groove, making it easy for the leader to convey his many messages.
FRANK ZAPPA, Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show. Frank Zappa’s 1988 band was staggeringly talented. Featuring the likes of Mike Keneally, Ike Willis, Scott Thunes, and Chad Wackerman, this band was able to take Zappa’s music in just about any direction their leader desired. That they imploded shortly after they came together remains one of music’s great tragedies. This concert, recorded on Long Island, is essential to anyone to appreciate the genius of the last full rock band Zappa employed.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, Liberation Time. Even at nearly 80, the legendary guitarist continues to astound us with his musical abilities, be they in the realm of fusion or straight-ahead jazz. The album is in a constant state of smolder, with the heat being turned up in just the right ways in just the right place. Fans new and long-term will appreciate this stellar release.
AHMIR “QUESTLOVE” THOMPSON, Summer of Soul. Not an album, but a must-see movie surrounding a music festival in Harlem, New York, during the summer of 1969. These shows were every bit as important as Woodstock, which took place upstate the same month. And while we have seen Woodstock from nearly every possible angle, these shows were filmed, stored away, and never heard or seen again until now. Summer of Soul is just that, a series of concerts filled with a “Who’s Who?” list of musicians, from Sly Stone to Stevie Wonder to B.B. King, with stops in between to visit the worlds of jazz, gospel, and Latin artists as well. Music lovers must not miss this event, period.
And here are a few others well worth your time:
* ANI DIFRANCO, Revolutionary Love
* JUSTICE COW, Underglam
* JAIMIE “BREEZY” BRANCH, Fly or Die Live
* FROST*, Day and Age
* MOLESOME, Are You There?
* COWBOYS AND FRENCHMEN, Our Highway
* GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
* HAL GALPER QUINTET, Live at the Berlin Philharmonic, 1977
* COPELAND, KING, COSMA & BELEW, Gizmodrome Live
* JAH WOBBLE, Metal Box — Rebuilt in Dub
* THUMBSCREW, Never is Enough
* STEPHAN THELEN, World Dialogue
* THE OMNIFIC, Escapades
* PERCY JONES, ALEX SKOLNICK, KENNY GROHOWSKI, TIM MOTZER, PAKT
* SONS OF KEMET, Black to the Future
This was quite the musical year, indeed. Here’s to an even more exciting 2022!
You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.
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