Retrospecstive 2022: Adrian Ainsworth’s 25 recordings of the year

I enjoyed so many great releases during the last year that merely the act of looking back, replaying some key choices, has taken quite some (pleasurable) time. I hope the 25 I eventually settled on include some new discoveries for you, and that you enjoy them as much as I have.

The main list is in alphabetical order by artist, to give curious readers the opportunity to range across genres at will. However, a quick summary for those in haste…

Classical releases feature from: Anakronos, Julia Bullock, Chineke! Orchestra, Davina Clarke & Mary Bevan, Sasha Cooke & Kirill Kuzmin, Marc-André Hamelin, Rebeca Omordia, Carolyn Sampson & Kristian Bezuidenhout, Sean Shibe, Sinfonia of London, Nicky Spence & Christopher Glynn, Carolin Widmann and Xuefei Yang.

I’d recommend Presto Music at https://www.prestomusic.com when shopping for classical CDs or downloads.

Non-classical round up: Afrorack, Arð, Daniel Bachman, Broken Bells, Danger Mouse & Black Thought, Drudkh, Brian Eno, Vieux Farka Touré et Khruangbin, Held by Trees, Jo Quail, Sieben and Woven Hand.

For other releases, please consider independent retailers such as Resident (https://www.resident-music.com), Drift (https://driftrecords.com) and Banquet (https://www.banquetrecords.com). In the cases of Afrorack, Arð, Daniel Bachman, Jo Quail and Sieben, it is worth visiting the relevant pages on Bandcamp to buy directly from the artist or label.

My album of the year provides the accompanying image for this article.

*

Afrorack: ‘The Afrorack’

Ugandan musician and electronics boffin Brian Bamanya has spent the last few years building and assembling ‘Africa’s first DIY modular synthesiser’. ‘Afrorack’ is the term he has coined for both the rig itself and his recording alias. On the face of it, the tracks he produces are perhaps what you might expect: old-school shimmer-and-squelch synth tunes given a funky twist by his use of African beats and rhythms. But you might not be prepare for just how wonderful it sounds, a ghost-in-the-machine otherness that feels almost nostalgic for a past that wasn’t there.

‘Osc’

Anakronos: ‘Citadel of Song’

I feared that Anakronos may only have come together for their brilliant debut ‘The Red Book of Ossory’. I needn’t have worried: this even-more-assured follow-up, a double CD, finds them bringing to life songs from the ‘Decameron’. Boccaccio wrote the lyrics but no music: so singer-director Caitriona O’Leary performed another feat of reconstruction, matching the words to surviving 14th century Italian melodies. And that’s just the start: Anakronos mix period instruments with guitar, bass and saxophone and use the basic tunes as launchpads for flights of improvisation. Fearlessly blending – or discarding – genres, this is a unique sound gloriously out of time and space.

‘Tanto è, Amore, il bene’

Arð: ‘Take Up My Bones’

Mark Deeks, the driving force behind Arð, has all ten fingers in a number of musical pies. Under his own name, he releases evocative solo piano records (check out ‘Left By the Sail Road’), teaches piano and runs a choir. But his first love is extreme music, and he holds the keyboard position in the excellent UK black metal band Winterfylleth. Finally bringing all his interests together – not least a fascination with the history and lore of his native Northumbria – Arð is a doom metal project which, on this album, examines the cult surrounding St Cuthbert and his remains. By letting loose with his classical leanings, Deeks has brought the cult to life with monastic multi-tracked vocals, and included piano alongside some gorgeously sympathetic cello from guest Jo Quail (see below). As a result, the album is original enough to spark interest among listeners steeped in doom, with a broad, enveloping sound that could attract newcomers alongside them.

‘Take Up My Bones’

Daniel Bachman: ‘Almanac Behind’

In last year’s list, I drew your attention to Bachman’s 2021 album ‘Axacan’, a politically-charged record that married American Primitive influenced solo guitar with electronics and found sound. ‘Almanac Behind’ is the natural sequel, a shorter, sharper record: more urgent, with the audio-collages starting to overwhelm the melodic elements as Bachman evokes loss and even terror. Moments of beauty are there to be had, however, such as the immersive dirge ‘Flood Stage’, the acoustic precision of ‘Daybreak’ and the closing ‘Recalibration / Normalization’.

‘Flood Stage / Inundation (The Blackout)’

Broken Bells: ‘Into the Blue’

Danger Mouse (or Brian Burton to his mum) has to be one of my favourite producers, weaving an instantly recognisable signature sound – a laidback funkiness – into a wide range of releases. Broken Bells is his ‘supergroup’ project with James Mercer (singer-songwriter and now only constant in his band The Shins), allowing the indie veteran to locate his inner soulman. Eight years since their last album, DM still draws out JM’s gift for sublime melodies – this time, amid a kind of slinky, widescreen psychedelia. Restrained; blissful.

‘Saturdays’

Julia Bullock: ‘Walking in the Dark’

One of the most distinctive and characterful debut albums I’ve heard. Needing only a sentence rather than a paragraph to make a statement, soprano Bullock has crafted an old-fashioned album (a comfortable fit for a single disc of vinyl) programmed with razor-sharp precision. Deploying her rich tone across treatments of Black heritage and spirituality, she melds jazz and blues with both modern classical (the Philharmonia Orchestra are on board for Barber’s ‘Knoxville’ and an aria from Adams’s ‘El Nino’) and the singer-songwriter tradition. Covers of songs by Sandy Denny and Connie Converse are impossibly beautiful. Christian Reif is an ideal foil on both piano and podium.

‘One by One’ (Connie Converse)

Chineke! Orchestra: ‘Coleridge-Taylor’

This is a tremendous debut release for Chineke! Orchestra’s own label (launched with Decca’s support) – for an organisation specifically created to provide opportunities for BAME musicians, what a terrific choice of composer to spotlight. The players lock into that sense of drive and swing in Coleridge-Taylor’s music: stretching luxuriously across two discs, they treat us to the Violin Concerto (with a show-stealing star turn from Elena Urioste), African and Othello Suites, Nonet and more – including a première recording of ‘Sussex Landscape’, a work by C-T’s daughter, Avril Coleridge-Taylor.

‘African Suite – IV. African Dance’

Davina Clarke, Mary Bevan, the Davina Clarke Ensemble: ‘Sweet Stillness’

As the booklet notes reveal, this album is the product of a close friendship. Clarke recounts how, after several years performing live together, she and soprano Bevan plotted this recording, which revolves around Handel’s ‘Nine German Arias’, broken into three groups by two of the composer’s violin sonatas. As such, the performances sound bright, fresh and spontaneous – even in the slower passages, the record captures a relaxed, conversational feel between the two soloists.

‘Meine Seele’

Sasha Cooke & Kirill Kuzmin: ‘how do I find you’

In response to the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, mezzo Sasha Cooke had the inspired idea to invite a group of young composers to contribute new songs for a recording. The results are extraordinary, ranging from the most avant-grade art song to dazzling showtune/cabaret numbers, but it all hangs together superbly because of certain common threads. One is that you can feel the youthful urgency and directness in all the work. Another is the commitment and skill of the performers. Kuzmin is a chameleon at the piano, taking on and conquering all styles, but at the centre is Cooke’s rich, warm voice, rendering the dark humour or melancholy running though these lyrics in three dimensions.

Album ‘teaser’ video

Danger Mouse & Black Thought: ‘Cheat Codes’

And he’s back already, Danger Mouse’s second entry in my 2022 list, underlining his genius for collaboration. Black Thought, the forceful, compelling rapper from The Roots, brings steel to DM’s loping, addictive beats. Guests abound, but they take their place in the album’s overall sonic universe. No tracks outstay their welcome, suspending you in limbo throughout: between the warm, crackling embrace of the music and the uncompromising attack of the rhymes. 

‘No Gold Teeth’ (warning: a bit sweary)

Drudkh: ‘All Belong to the Night’

It’s hard to believe that black metal band Drudkh have been producing consistently excellent work in near-total seclusion (no interviews, no gigs) for two decades. They have a template of sorts: many of their albums have a handful of long tracks which provide their fair share of furious blasting, but leavened with prog touches that draw you in across lengthy running times and repeated plays. On this latest record, their 11th, check out the tolling piano underscoring the eerie atmosphere of ‘Till We Become the Haze’, and the epic major-chord positivity of ‘Windmills’. Their record label suggests the latter track aims to offer the listener some hope in devastating circumstances: what better year to support a band hailing from Ukraine?

‘The Nocturnal One’

Brian Eno: ‘FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE’

One of my favourite Eno records of recent years is 2016’s ‘The Ship’. It had been over a decade since he had last sung on one of his albums, and ‘The Ship’ found him blending his ambient, glacial compositional style with resonant, powerful vocals. I loved it; loved being reminded what a great voice he has. 2022’s ‘FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE’ refines this approach, somehow bringing the same stately power to a set of shorter, more urgent tracks.

‘Garden of Stars’

Vieux Farka Touré et Khruangbin: ‘Ali’

The perfect match? Around 15 years or so after Ali Farka Touré’s death, his son Vieux – a celebrated musician in his own right – teamed up with possibly the ideal band to help him pay tribute to his dad. Khruangbin are a US trio in thrall to various avenues of world music, dance and psychedelia, already several albums into an acclaimed career. Without ever overshadowing Vieux’s lead role, Khruangbin supply their own infectious groove across eight covers of Ali originals. The collaboration is exquisite, irresistible.

‘Tongo Barra’

Marc-Andre Hamelin: ‘CPE Bach: Sonatas & Rondos’

Rewind to the first week of last year – like a late Christmas present, Hyperion delivered this banquet of a release (a 2CD, 2h 20m extravaganza) of one of my favourite pianists tackling one of my favourite composers. Apparent perfection – accuracy, speed, variety, emotion – but with a wilful, forward-looking unpredictability: I could be talking about CPEB or Hamelin, made for each other here.

Album ‘teaser’ video

Held by Trees: ‘Solace’

The band Talk Talk enjoyed an 80s chart heyday before transitioning into leader Mark Hollis’s more introverted, delicate vision of the group, lasting across the albums ‘Spirit of Eden’, ‘Laughing Stock’ and Hollis’s only solo, self-titled record. Fast forward to the present day, and composer/performer David Joseph decided to create an instrumental album in a similar style, in recognition of the late Hollis’s influence, and using a number of the same musicians. The result is a classic ‘future-retro’ experience, taking a sound you thought you remembered – and might never hear again – into completely new territory.

‘Rain After Sun (live in rehearsal)’

Rebeca Omordia: ‘African Pianism’

“This marvellous disc contains multitudes. The variety of sounds and styles packed into its generous 77 minutes showcases … the infinite intrigue of a music too little-heard until now… The versatile Omordia, with exquisite variety of touch and audible enthusiasm, is our tour guide through a soundworld that – to many Western ears, I’m sure – feels both ‘exotic’ and familiar at the same time. The results, however, are accessible and evocative throughout – so much so, that the album overall, brilliantly sequenced, very soon becomes a captivating, addictive listen.”

‘Egan Variations in G Major’ (Ayo Bankole)

Jo Quail: ‘The Cartographer’

A genuine magnum opus from genre-defying cellist-composer Jo Quail, ‘The Cartographer’ seemed like a summation of her experimental, exhilarating and often ecstatic musical adventures so far. Genuinely at home in front of classical, folk, and metal audiences, she was the perfect artist to take on the Roadburn festival commission to create a work exploring ‘heaviness’ in a classical idiom. Don’t expect a string quartet bolted onto a rock song: this is five movements of fully-integrated sound, weaving together strings, piano, percussion, trombones, guitar and two extraordinary vocal performances from guests Lucie Delhi and Jake Harding. It builds into an unforgettable climax that just drives you towards repeat plays. Magnificent.

‘Movement 2’

Carolyn Sampson & Kristian Bezuidenhout: ‘Trennung’

“Given the musicians involved, it should come as no surprise to learn that ‘Trennung’ is an immaculately crafted and beautifully performed album. But it’s also an unusual record, turning up at the party dressed as a recital disc, but as time goes on, revealing more and more of its unique character. It’s a considerable sonic achievement; a dramatically well-realised concept; and, last but not least, a total mood.”

‘An den Schlaf’ (Friedrich Gottlob Fleischer)

Sean Shibe: ‘Lost and Found’

“Throughout the record, layers of guitar hover behind and around each other, giving a ‘multi-dimensional’ effect that perfectly matches the esoteric nature of the material. Even the pacing of the album is a wonder, consistently steady, content to let the tracks build gradually and work their unhurried magic. As a lover of guitar music in general, I was thrilled to hear an album this assured. It’s a record that makes a new case for its instrument … and I can pay no higher compliment than that.”

‘O viridissima virga’ (Hildegard von Bingen, arranged by Sean Shibe)

Sieben: ‘Ten Hymns for Modern Times’

With the occasional exception, Matt Howden keeps to a certain formula when recording under his Sieben alias: all the songs use just his voice and violin, fed into his loop station, then sequenced, manipulated and transformed as needed. Early on, his work was almost pastoral, steeped in floral, florid lyrics, rural rituals, even mystery plays. But when Britain went to pot, something stirred; he began a reverse musical journey, putting his mellow youth behind him and emerging as a ruefully mature, clear-sighted, full-throated ‘favourite punk-le’. The more sophisticated and orchestral his set-up, the more brutal and forceful his outrage. This latest record is an assault on the senses in the best way – funny, funky, beautifully sung and still exhilaratingly virtuosic in its exploration of the fiddle’s possibilities.

‘Phone Charge Hymn’

Sinfonia of London, John Wilson: ‘Hollywood Soundstage’

It feels like this disc has been waiting to happen. With his eponymous orchestra seemingly quiet over the last few years (after storming one Prom season after another with their immaculate revivals), John Wilson has focused on reactivating the Sinfonia of London. The original SoL was founded with film soundtracks in mind. In Wilson’s incarnation, they’re another crack team of specially-chosen musicians, seemingly formed to bring together his main interests: relatively hidden corners of the repertoire (a raft of previous releases on Chandos) and now back to Hollywood’s golden age. A sumptuous selection of pieces (suites from ‘Now Voyager’, ‘Rebecca’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are flanked by standout themes from ‘Laura’ and ‘The Sandpiper’, among others), and a five-star production job that marries the ‘sheen’ from the old days with state-of-the-art clarity and detail.

‘Theme from Laura’ (Raksin)

Nicky Spence & Christopher Glynn: ‘Schubert: The Fair Maid of the Mill’

This release was concluded Glynn’s project to record the three Schubert song cycles in English (using sensitive, naturalistic translations by Jeremy Sams). As a trilogy, it’s been thought-through and executed beautifully, matching the singers’ registers to the themes covered by each sequence (bass John Tomlinson in ‘Swan Song’, baritone Roderick Williams in ‘Winter Journey’). Here, tenor Nicky Spence expertly plays off his good-humoured, robust persona to chart the young protagonist’s collapse with blistering anguish.

‘Somewhere’

Carolin Widmann: ‘L’Aurore’

What a fascinating album. As she explains at greater length in the video below, violinist Widmann has created a solo recital that paints at least a couple of portraits. One is of herself through including pieces close to her, and another is of the violin, featuring composers such as Ysaye and Enescu with particular associations with the instrument. She is silent below on the George Benjamin pieces, which I adored: beautiful, but so taut, something of the coiled spring about them, just like his tension-filled operas.

Album ‘teaser’ video

Wovenhand: ‘Silver Sash’

Wovenhand’s music has always been a unique blend of the earthly and divine, frontman David Eugene Edwards (a devout, if unconventional, Christian) declaiming his scripture-based lyrics over a heady brew drawing from rock, metal, folk and roots music. ‘Silver Sash’ – which came to life through DEE writing solely with demos and sketches bandmate Chuck French had stored up – introduces a new element of noise and electronics to the recognisable Wovenhand sound. It works brilliantly, DEE’s hewn-from-the-earth, apocalyptic vocals cutting through the industrial accompaniment. A chilling, intense half-hour, as if your radio dial had accidentally picked up Revelation.

‘8 of 9’

Xuefei Yang: ‘Guitar Favourites’

Earlier this year, I wrote about Yang’s previous release, the lushly orchestrated collection of works by John Brunning. Gorgeous though that was, I cannot miss the opportunity to highlight her follow-up, released in November. There’s nothing quite like listening to Yang’s brilliance solo, and this feast of guitar ‘classics’ (reflecting stages in Yang’s career, but here all newly recorded in an inspired two-day session) is every bit the treat you’d expect. An added highlight is the first piece Yang has written herself, ‘Xinjiang Fantasy’, a natural progression from her superb ‘Sketches of China’ album.

‘Capricio Árabe’ (Tárrega)

AA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s