What distinguishes the best popular music recordings of 2022? Well, women, for one thing.
Six of the 10 entries on this critic’s pick roundup come from female artists representing multiple generations. Expand that to examine the entire list and you have music that encompasses bluegrass, folk-fortified rock ‘n’ roll, ambient soundscapes, blues-informed pop, vintage jazz and more.
So kick back this Christmas weekend with a look back at these expert recordings from the year nearly gone. All are presented as equals with no ranking system. But make no mistake. In this lineup, the women took charge.
S.G. Goodman: “Teeth Marks”
“Teeth Marks” has Fulton County native Goodman expertly balancing a level of unspoiled dynamics with the kind of confessional songwriting skills most folk artists would kill for. But “Teeth Marks” is no folk record. At one moment, Goodman can a deliver lone, shattering vocal that sounds like it was pulled from the darkest of hollers. The next she can plug-in and pilot an electric charge as assured and it is immediate. “Answered the call to rock and roll” she sings early on. That she does and then some.
Samara Joy: “Linger Awhile”
Samara Joy is a jazz singer — not a pop or R&B stylist hoping to mine swing and soul inspirations to up her hip factor, but a serious jazz stylist. This Bronx-born 23-year-old possesses the chops and vocal phrasing smarts to embrace jazz clearly on its own terms. Styles shifting from vocalese to the blues along with accents recalling giants like Sarah Vaughan abound on this collection of standards by Gershwin, Monk and more. But there is nothing imitative about this brilliant young artist. What you hear is pure Joy.
Amanda Shires: “Take it Like a Man”
From the instant she breaks into a buzz saw fiddle break on the album opening “Hawk for the Dove,” Amanda Shires fashions a wonderfully ragged quilt of American pop references with a powerfully fractured cinematic flair and a voice that is equal parts Dolly Parton and Patti Smith. “I know the cost of flight is landing,” she sings tellingly on the title tune to “Take It Like a Man,” an album grounded in earthy desire but dressed in a sense of pop bravado that can’t help but soar.
Billy Strings: “Me/and/Dad”
Strings may be the hottest guitar picker of his generation in or out of bluegrass circles, but the beauty of “Me/and/Dad” is how it promotes a familial fondness for old school country and Americana over warp-speed progressive grass. As the title suggests, the record centers on Strings collaborating with mentoring stepfather Terry Barber. From that emerges a love of traditional bluegrass so authentic that you will swear “Me/and/Dad” was cut in 1972, not 2022.
Aoife O’Donovan: “Age of Apathy”
There is a delicacy to Aoife O’Donovan’s voice that recalls Alison Krauss. Her songs, though, possess a ghostly quality, one that reflects a sense of restlessness that blows through these songs like a desert wind. Folkish in design but not always intent, the Joe Henry-produced “Age of Apathy” possesses plenty of melodic accessibility. O’Donovan’s gift, though, is coloring a set of wistful narratives with a voice that sounds gorgeously haunted.
Andrew Bird: “Inside Problems”
The beauty of Andrew Bird’s music is you never really know where you will wind up. True to its title, “Inside Problems” has Bird internalizing much of the socio-political unease of 2019’s “My Finest Work Yet” to emerge with music that is far more intimate. That translates into a four-piece band, along the pizzicato and plucking of Bird’s violin work, that takes us on a cerebral joyride, shifting from stark chamber-style unrest to Velvet Underground-style dynamics.
Roger Eno: “The Turning Year”
The ambient music Roger Eno has explored through the years, both on his own and with older sibling Brian Eno, has usually unfolded through electronics. For “The Turning Year,” he unplugs for a suite of 14 instrumental works where acoustic piano colors the soundscapes. Suitably prog-style accompaniment comes from chamber-style strings. Running from minimalistic to meditative, the music summoned on “The Turning Year” by the Other Eno makes for 2022’s most regal chill-out record.
Bonnie Raitt: “Just Like That…”
Few pop artists of any generation have aged with more obvious grace than Bonnie Raitt. She sounds like royalty on “Just Like That…” At 73, her singing is clear and robustly confident, but bears a hint of world-weariness that suits these 10 songs nicely. The only thing that has changed about her sterling guitarwork is its placement. Here, it seeps into the crevices of her songs and singing to make their sense of age glow.
Tyler Childers: “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?”
There is no question that “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?” is an indulgence for Lawrence County’s master song stylist. It’s a record that recasts the same eight tunes in three different settings over three separate records. But what riches there are here, from a sense of gospel fervor that triggers some of Childers’ most expressive vocal work to arrangements that ignite a sense of spiritualism through layers of stark reflection, brass/strings-led jubilation and remix invention. What a ride.
Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway: “Crooked Tree”
Following a 2020 album (“… But I’d Rather Be With You”) of stylistically far-reaching covers recorded mostly in COVID-caused isolation, “Crooked Tree” blasts forth with a vigorous set of Tuttle originals propelled by the live drive of her masterful Golden Highway band. Guests abound (Margo Price, Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch), but what distinguishes “Crooked Tree” is Tuttle’s rustic storytelling, scholarly bluegrass/Americana instrumentation and golden singing.