Favorite Albums of 2022

Favorite Albums of 2022

Well folks, we made it. Another year in the books. 2022 was, for the most part, a seemingly normal year (whatever “normal” may mean these days). Besides the start of a senseless war in Ukraine, a contentious election season, climate change worries, and other tensions and tragedies at home and abroad, many of our activities have largely returned to how they were pre-spring 2020. It seems that, finally, the worst of the pandemic is behind us. (At least, one can hope. *Knock on wood.*) Personally, I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I finished my dissertation, graduated with a PhD in musicology, and got the chance to travel to London and the East Coast/Midwest. There were some low points, too. A mild bout of COVID (after successfully dodging it for 2.5 years) and a so-far-unsuccessful job search cast a bit of a cloud over the final months of the year, but all things considered, I’d give 2022 an enthusiastic two-thumbs up.

Goodbye, 2022! You were aight.

Classical music also experienced something of a renaissance this year, and the recording realm captured some incredible artistry and fantastic music. There’s lots to love: vivacious viola music from an underrated Baroque composer, a stunning Christmas oratorio, the soundtrack from a mind-bending new streaming series, the list goes on. Vocal music made quite a showing, in particular, with many intimate recordings that probe the depths of the human experience, particularly those of underrepresented communities.

Below are ten of my favorite recordings from this past year and five honorable mentions. As I say every year, Spotify and Apple Music are great for their convenience, but streaming royalties are generally atrocious. By all means, feel free to stream and enjoy the albums below, but if a particular one strikes you, please consider purchasing it as a digital or physical copy. Outlets like Bandcamp are especially great options for this, as most of the proceeds go directly to the artists.

Alright, let’s begin. In no particular order…

J’Nai Bridges, Will Liverman, Paul Sánchez, Leonardo Altino & Caen Thomason-Redus – Shawn E. Okpebholo: Lord, How Come Me Here? – Spirituals, Folk Hymns, and Art Song Reimagined (Navona Records)

The African American spiritual is perhaps the most miraculous genre of American music. Though a by-product of slavery—an abhorrent scar on our nation’s history—these songs encapsulate a stunning range of human expression in the face of shocking injustice, from grief and anger to joy and hope. Lord, How Come Me Here? presents a new look into this rich repertoire, featuring several spirituals and folk hymns arranged by the young American composer Shawn E. Okpebholo. Okpebholo is a remarkably-gifted arranger; his harmonic palette is broad and luminous, yet sensitive, and the results are breathtaking. This album tag-teams between the voices of two extraordinary singers—mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and baritone Will Liverman—with amicable accompaniment from pianist Paul Sánchez. (Cellist Leonardo Altino and flutist Caen Thomason-Redus also appear in two separate tracks, which add an extra dash of color.) Rounding out the album is Two Black Churches, an original composition by Okpebholo that offers a striking reflection on two separate tragedies—the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 and the mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 2015. “How much has changed?” asks Okpebholo in the liner notes. Clearly, we have a long way to go as a nation. We would do well to listen to this music, learn from our history, and work towards a brighter, more just future.

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Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

There’s a moment in the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle when the camera cuts to a lively party in progress at a spacious New York City apartment. Young people are scattered throughout the room, which is abuzz with chatting and drinking. One character scratches a record back and forth on a turntable before the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen begins to play over the speakers. Gleefully, the character shouts:

“Let’s get Biz-AYYY!”

It was then my suspicions were confirmed—this show was going to be a glorious mess.

The first season of Mozart in the Jungle dropped on Amazon Prime Video in December 2014. It continued for three more seasons before ending its run in 2018. Loosely based on Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name, this fictional dramedy series follows the story of young oboist Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke) as she tries to make it in New York City’s vibrant and competitive classical music scene. Along the way, she must navigate musician egos, backstabbing, blackmailing, mounting expectations, and performance anxiety, not to mention lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Sounds fun, right?

Let’s call this one “Mozart in the Jungle out-of-context”

Whenever classical music appears in films or TV shows, the results are always a mixed bag. They either stretch the truth (as much as I adore Amadeus, it’s not the most historically-accurate portrait of Mozart or Salieri), present it as a symbol of the upper-class elite and/or notorious villains (hello, Mr. Bond), or just miss the mark entirely (nothing like trying to sell more Volvos with the music of an unhinged, manipulative mother who’s trying to get her daughter to kill someone). However, there are occasions when the media does get it right. (I’ve always been a fan of this iPad commercial starring Esa-Pekka Salonen.) So, the appearance of Mozart in Jungle sparked lots of excitement and trepidation in the classical community. Would the series finally get classical musicians—and the music itself—right for once?

Well, yes and no.

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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 a 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 edit: Similarly, Google acknowledged J.S. Bach’s birthday in 2019 with a Doodle that, with the help of AI, generated a Bach-style harmonization around a two-bar melody you fed it.]

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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