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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A Playlist for Holy Week

I love roller coasters, but I fully admit, the past few weeks have been one roller coaster that I want to get off of. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a seismic shift in the daily routines of billions of people worldwide, forcing us to adapt to new personal and public norms. For both me and countless others, there have been challenges (moving a 450-student Music Appreciation class to an online format), disappointments (having to cancel a planned trip), and frustrations (not being able to go out with friends or family). Of course, this is all for a common, honorable cause but it’s still been tough adjusting to a new normal.

All that said, though, this pandemic has brought about many good things—alternative social interactions with friends, more quality time with my immediate family, tons of exercise (i.e., so many walks!), decreased pollution levels. The list goes on. I have also listened to a lot of music. Like, a LOT. And this past week in particular, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible variety, quality, and scope of classical music written either for or in the spirit of Holy Week.

So, I decided to construct a Holy Week playlist. The selections in this playlist are wildly eclectic and span almost a thousand years, ranging from the meditative sounds of the 11th-century nun-poet-composer Hildegard von Bingen to the decisively-modern style of James MacMillan. A total of twenty-three composers are represented (Bach three times!). Of course, sadly, many had to be left out.

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John Adams: “El Niño”

As a native Southern Californian, the phrase “El Niño” conjures up associations of rain—lots of it. However, as a classical music lover, it also brings to mind the title of John Adams’s marvelous Christmas oratorio.

Not quite, Chris Farley! “El Niño” is actually Spanish for the Christ child.

Composed in the year 2000, El Niño is sort of a distant, twenty-first-century cousin of Handel’s Messiah. (I wrote about a twentieth-century equivalent last year, which you can check out here.) Adams’s music and text settings are amazingly eclectic. Here, old texts from the Gospels (both the traditional and the Apocrypha), Martin Luther, and the Wakefield Mystery Plays fit comfortably alongside contemporary poetry by Spanish, Mexican, and South American authors. The music is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing Gregorian chant and classical choruses to minimalism and bebop. The result is a dazzling and ultimately, profoundly moving, account of the Christmas story.

To celebrate the Christmas season, here are a handful of my favorite excerpts from Adams’s oratorio. The complete work can be heard in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post.

1. The Babe Leaped in Her Womb/Magnificat

Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth is given an intriguing musical treatment in Adams’s oratorio. Setting words from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel, three countertenors (who act as narrators throughout the work) recount the story above a gentle instrumental backdrop—colored by guitar and tuned percussion—with occasional interpolations from the chorus. The titular phrase “The babe leaped in her womb” is set with buoyant cross-rhythms—a delightfully ear-catching moment.

Following this is Mary’s famous canticle of praise—the Magnificata text that has been set by countless composers over the centuries. Adams’s version is mostly reserved, yet brims with awe at the magnanimity of Mary’s situation. (In the oratorio’s only official recording to date, this portion is ravishingly sung by the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.)

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