Favorite Albums of 2021

Favorite Albums of 2021

We’re living in a strange time. OK, we’ve been living in a “strange time” since March 2020, but everything now seems a bit like it’s in limbo. On one hand, our day-to-day activities have more or less returned to normal for the time being, thanks to the wide availability of vaccines and boosters (at least, in the U.S.). But on the other hand, the discovery of new, more transmissible COVID variants has sparked a renewed air of caution and concern. (Who would’ve thought that we’d all be getting a crash course on the Greek alphabet?)

Can we just be done with this already? Please?

Still, there’s been so much to be grateful for this past year. Namely, the wealth of new music released was a consistent bright spot amidst the unpredictability of it all. (Adele’s new album, anyone?) The classical realm in particular really came through with some incredible albums. Resurrected classics, dazzling contemporary music, and the presence of more diverse voices—both new and old—marked many of the releases this year.

Below are ten of my favorite albums from 2021. If you like what you hear, as always, I encourage my readers to consider purchasing the album rather than just streaming it. Apple and Amazon are convenient choices for this, but if possible, I highly recommend using Bandcamp, which donates most of the proceeds directly to the artists.

Without further ado, here are my ten choices, along with a handful of honorable mentions. In no particular order…

Timo Andres, Ian Rosenbaum, Lindsay Kesselman & Mingzhe Wang – The Arching Path (In a Circle Records)

For those who have doubts about the future of classical music—or whatever one wants to call it—listen to anything by Christopher Cerrone and you will be convinced that it is in more-than-capable hands. (See also Caroline Shaw below.) This album captures four examples of Cerrone’s kaleidoscopic sound world. Bookended by two sparkling piano pieces—Hoyt-Schermerhorn and the titular Arching Path—the middle of the album features works for slightly-larger ensemble (showcasing some remarkable performances by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, pianist Timo Andres, clarinettist Mingzhe Wang, and percussionist Ian Rosenbaum). Double Happiness blissfully ruminates on the composer’s travels to Italy, while the song cycle I will learn to love a person is an ode to the joys and frustrations of being a Millennial. Who says that classical music can’t speak to us twenty- and thirty-somethings?

(For more on this album, be sure to check out my conversation with Cerrone from May 2021.)

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A Playlist for Christmas

A Playlist for Christmas

Another holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a wealth of season-appropriate music. (Some good and some not so good. Here’s looking at you, Bob Dylan, and your Christmas album. Yikes.) The sacred realm, in particular, contains an absolute treasure trove of works that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus. So much of this music has played an indispensable role in my life, and the season is not complete until I’ve given at least one listen to John Adams’s El Niño and Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, to name just two pieces.

To celebrate this time of year, me and my good friend/fellow music nerd, Geoff Nelson, have culled together a playlist that journeys through the story of Christmas, beginning with the longings of Advent and ending with hope for the new year. As with our Holy Week playlist this past March, our selections encompass a broad spectrum of styles and sounds, often wandering between them in unique and surprising ways. (Who knew that Palestrina and The Oh Hellos actually work really well together?) The playlist can also be approached in different ways. Since it is 31 tracks long, it can either be used as a sort of musical “Advent calendar” (i.e., listening to one track each day throughout the 31 days of December), or it can be consumed in a single sitting.

No matter how you approach it—and no matter your faith background—we sincerely hope that our musical selections will inspire reflection, hope, and joy as the world celebrates this holiday season.

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Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Although most of the hubbub surrounding Beethoven’s 250th birthday has subsided, a few bits of the celebration have lingered into 2021 as concert halls worldwide open up once again. However, one recent Beethoven item has raised many eyebrows in the music world. Back in September, the news broke that a team of computer specialists and music scholars had “completed” Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony using AI technology and scant scraps that Beethoven left behind upon his death in 1827. Dubbed “Beethoven X: The AI Project,” it was also announced that recording of the results—played by a live orchestra—would be released the following month. Like many, I was skeptical. This just seemed like another lame excuse for more Beethoven deification, one that would take the focus away from issues that are currently more pressing, like promoting diversity and equity in classical music.

Still, I was curious what the results would sound like. So, I recently met over Zoom with my friend Tanner Cassidy—a PhD candidate in music theory at UC Santa Barbara—to listen to it and share our impressions. (There may have been a smidge of alcohol involved as well… *wink*) Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity. What did we think? Does a computer have the potential to live up to Beethoven or is this something best left in the trash bin? Let’s find out…


Kevin McBrien (KM): So about a year or two ago, this German telecommunications company [Telekom]—with AI specialists and music scholars—was like, “Hey, let’s take these incomplete sketches of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and feed it into an AI program and see what happens.” And this is the resulting piece that came out of it. There was this musicologist—Barry Cooper—who reconstructed the first movement in the 80s and that’s been recorded and released as kind of a hypothetical Beethoven 10. And this one, apparently, is just the third and fourth movements.

The musicologist Barry Cooper realized the first movement of Beethoven’s Tenth in the 80s, which was subsequently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Tanner Cassidy (TC): So there’s no second movement that exists?

KM: I guess not, or there’s not enough to go off of.

TC: I actually have some experience with AI-generated music. An undergrad friend of mine was writing bebop-based algorithmic composition, where he fed it Charlie Parker licks, and then he had me play what the computer spit out, which was just nonsense. AI has really struggled with rhythm, so I’m really curious to see what rhythm sounds like.

KM: Yeah, I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story, and it’s weird. So, I’m also curious to listen to the whole thing.

TC: Well, I’ll mute my audio, and then we can listen to this.


[We listen to the third movement.]

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