Did you miss Part One, which was loaded with links to amazing music … and my hastily scribbled reflections on each of those albums?

Never fear. It’s waiting for you here.

And now, if you’re up for another treasure hunt, here we go with Part Two of this three-part marathon.


Wilco — Cruel Country

Wilco has always been a country band at heart. What other genre could a title like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” belong to? And here, they remind us of their Uncle Tupelo roots more generously and enthusiastically than they have anywhere along the way of their three-decades-plus adventure. And, frankly, I’m relieved — the casual sonic experimentation of their last several records has always been interesting, and there have been some highlights like Star Wars, but very few of their songs have stuck with me since 2004’s A Ghost is Born. Here, they sound like a band you could actually go and listen to in a room instead of a bunch of mad scientists pushing their sounds into new frontiers.

Jeff Tweedy reminds me a little of David Bazan in how his prolific songwriting energy brings us new material every year, either under his own name, as a side project, as a personal contribution to a record he’s producing for someone else, or under a band’s moniker. But there’s always been something particular and special about Wilco — a band that remains recognizable even though their evolution is constant and dramatic.

The beauty of these melodies comes so effortlessly to Tweedy, while the ensemble contributions make this clearly a collaboration and not just a Jeff Tweedy double album.

And the lyrics give me new ways to sing prayers for my appallingly unrighteous nation, to confess its contradictions, to lament my complicity, to hope for the realization of the dreams it so falsely professes.


Anna Tivel — Outsiders

I had the joy of discovering Anna Tivel when she performed at the Nowhere Else festival, spotlighted by Over the Rhine, in 2021. Her set, and then her performance in the songwriters’ circle there, made me an immediate fan. Her voice is distinct, her stage presence charismatic, and, most impressively, her lyrics are poetic and profound.

I would say more, but since NPR’s Ann Powers, a critic for whom I have the utmost respect, chose this record as her #1 pick for 2022, I’m going to direct you to her testimony:

Unmatched as an empath among her folk-leaning peers, the Oregon-based Tivel has the voice of a wobbly angel and a gift for making the poetic palpable. She’s built her latest album around the idea that we are all on some kind of edge, partially unseen by others. Some of her antiheroes — a homeless man, a youth shot in a police incident — fit standard descriptions of outsiders, but most are folk who’d pass as getting by. Quietly exceeding the usual folk frameworks, Tivel and producer Shane Leonard’s arrangements work like fine cinematography, perfectly framing her devastating scenes.


Hurray for the Riff Raff — Life on Earth

One of the most urgent, eloquent takes on the troubles of the 2020s comes — unsurprisingly – from Alynda Segarra. Life on Earth never flinches from acknowledging these present darknesses: the hardships of worsening natural disasters, the persecution and dehumanization of immigrants and refugees, and the corrosive effects of hate-driven aggression. But she sings with such love, such attention to beauty, and such transcendent hope that I come away from every listen feeling as if I have both wept and rejoiced, lamented the world’s injustices and pledged to go on loving anyway.

There is a solace in surrender, and its deeply affecting in songs like “Life on Earth” and “Nightqueen.” There are recurring images of living on the run, on banding together with others for survival. Perhaps the record’s most affecting track is “Precious Cargo,” a low-kep rap that invites us to join a chant against the human rights violations of I.C.E. It’s a bold, unapologetic, thrilling call for unity against oppression. It could make you cry. It could make you march. It could make you change your life.

When the summons for us to love our neighbors turns to action, the world around us gets uncomfortable, gets angry, gets violent. Hurray for the Riff Raff doesn’t sound scared. They’re giving us songs of resistance, and the beauty in their deep conviction can remind us that, in the Grand Scheme of things, the battle is already won. The light of love and compassion is shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Cannot overcome it.


Bonny Light Horseman — Rolling Golden Holy

Anaïs Mitchell — Anaïs Mitchell

The collaboration of Anaïs Mitchell (the genius behind Hadestown and several exquisite folk-rock albums), Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman as producer hauls in taking on a life of its own, moving from what looked like an inspired one-off in their self-titled 2020 release to reveal that they’ve put down roots and begun to grow together into a rich and rewarding orchard of songcraft. Their songs continue to sound timeless — I would have believed you if you told me they were unearthing gems from a century ago and giving them new life. But then again, the lyrics – laced with Gospel and history, as so many of Mitchell’s own songs have been — can be sung with a sense of immediacy.

And given that this fully satisfying release arrives so soon after Mitchell’s own self-titled 2022 release — an album that plays like an intimate memoir with vivid glimpses of childhood, adolescence, young love, and lessons from other creative collaborations — it seems like we’re watching a great American original at the peak of her powers. That’s an album that has been growing on me all year long, and songs that I found merely pleasant at first — “The Words,” “Little Big Girl,” “Real World” — now move me powerfully.

I am particularly enchanted with these lines from “The Words”:

Found what I’m not looking for
A melody as sweet and pure
As any one sung by the birds
I’m tryna find the words…

See them perched all in a row
I prefer the window closed
I don’t like to be disturbed
Tryna find the words…

Meanwhile the birds sing
Meanwhile the church bells ring
Meanwhile the children laughing…

You can read more about this album at Americana Highways.


Angel Olsen — Big Time

I don’t know if what I’m about to say will make any sense. In my experience, it has seemed that the great singers reach a moment when their voices become such a prominent thread in the weave of your world that you can’t remember a time when you didn’t know their voices. They go from being a stream you’ve encountered on a hike in the woods to a river that shows up on all your maps, a household name, a music that acts as a sort of validating element of anything it accompanies. They become like a fundamental instrument in an orchestra — as essential as a french horn or a bassoon.

When Angel Olsen’s voice showed up in the trailer for Empire of Light this year, it woke me up out of my movie-trailer doldrums and electrified me. I suddenly wanted to see that movie. But no, I didn’t, not really. I just wanted to dive into the ocean of the sound that was resonating in the theater. I realized that I had reached a point where Olsen’s voice had gone from being an intriguing new sound to being a force that had power over me.

The song that accompanies that trailer is “Go Home” from Big Time, and that’s just one of ten tracks here that feel like a kind of perfection in that rich and fruitful musical territory that overlaps country and rock. It feels like a defining moment for an artist who has been on the rise for several years now.

But I can’t deny that it also resonates with me because, just as Olsen’s coming out and the deaths of both of her parents made the recording of this album a transformational season, I hear these songs of disorientation, songs of severance from the fundamentals of the first half of one’s life, as a sort of personal soundtrack. As I am experiencing a combination of life-altering losses and betrayals, and as I am searching for vocabulary that will be meaningful to me going forward, I find strength and consolation in Angel Olsen’s company. When she sings, in “Ghost On,” “I was looking at old you / Looking at who you’ve become,” she might be seeking reconciliation with her former self. And if she isn’t, I certainly am.


Spoon — Lucifer on the Sofa

Once upon a time, there were honest-to-goodness meat-and-potatoes rock bands all over the place. And not just solid rock bands, but rock bands defined by authenticity and committed to the potential and possibilities of guitar, bass, and drums without letting experimentation or trends take over. In my opinion, great American rock bands always give you the feeling that they can perform, together, onstage, what you are hearing on the recording. And their lyrics seem ripped out of their guts, the words barely able to contain the conviction, rather than what we get from the wannabes — the songs “written” with the help of a rhyming dictionary and a repository of cliches, forgettable sentiments poured into formulaic molds. When I think of the professionals, I think of The Velvet Underground, The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., Cracker, and early U2 and R.E.M. (before their albums became more about production than performance).

These days, bands like that are hard to find. Spoon seems to me like 2023’s best band of rockers who have been faithful to not only their own particular vision but to the principle of good hard American rock music. They sound cocky. They sound sure of themselves. They sound angry but hopeful. And they sound live. Each one of these songs feels like a piece of solid handmade furniture, a rocking chair that somehow rocks rigorously forward and back to the point of tipping over but never does. Great rock songs give you that sense of speeding  down a winding mountain-pass road on a dark night and taking the corners so fast you might fly off into space at any moment, but somehow you always land right and the song keeps on barreling forward. That’s what Lucifer on the Sofa sounds like.

And every time I play it in the car, I get the urge to be one of those fools who cranks to volume to maximum, rolls down the windows, beats the steering wheel like it’s a drum kit, and wants everyone in the world to get in on the energy. I don’t, mind you – but I get the urge.


Kathryn Joseph — For You Who Are the Wronged

It’s difficult for me to listen to Kathryn Joseph without wondering why I haven’t heard her voice in any David Lynch movie soundtracks before. Her vocals remind me at times of Bjork when she’s in her half-whisper mode, like a spirit wheezing through a window screen, or like a spell sent by a good witch to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Somehow, in these suggestive and strange lyrics, I end up feeling the comfort of a kindred spirit even as I feel the chill that means I’m in the presence of something supernatural and dangerous.

Consider these lines from “The Burning of Us All”:

The way they stole your daughters and your sons
The way they tried to make them hate the ones they love
There is no one coming, every wolf cry call
There’s a sound of burning, burning of us all

Or these from “Until the Truth of You”:

Give me your sorrow, give me your blood
Beg, steal, and borrow all I have loved
I like it, I hide in it all
I like it, I try to find it all worth fighting for

Hear the way these lines claim that abusers have failed. Hear how she reassures the survivors, those who have been beaten down but not defeated, in “How Well You Are”:

They who saved themselves
From who made the locks
From who turn the ship towards the rocks
They who held the light from the out of sight
And mind of all they didn’t break your fall
And look how well you are
Look how well you are

These are songs of reassurance, liberating in their truthful acknowledgment of abuse and their promise that, one way or another, the Higher Powers of the world will not let darkness overcome us. I’ve only begun to work my way through the unsettling riddles of the lyrics, but I sense a sort of Gospel at work here.

12Jessie Buckley & Bernard Butler — For All the Days That Tear the Heart

I mean… I knew Jessie Buckley was a force to be reckoned with on the big screen. She’s quickly become the most interesting new actress in the movies for me. And her performance a couple of years ago in Wild Rose revealed that she can also command our attention with her singing.

But this… this suggests she might be a great a singer as she is an actress – maybe even greater. And her commitment to the poetry of these songs, and their orchestral, operatic ambition, suggests that she also has standards of artistry higher than those who commit to the business of hit-making.

I don’t feel equipped to write a full appreciation of this record yet. I discovered it late, thanks to Ann Powers at NPR, and I am kind of awestruck.


David Bowie — Moonage Daydream: A Film By Brett Morgen

I have to include this one-of-a-kind soundtrack album, because it is entirely worthwhile as a surround-sound aural experience, separate from what was the most riveting and thrilling cinematic experience of the year for me.

Moonage Daydream works best as an IMAX movie, with colors and images, animation and live-performance footage, abstract special effects and Hubble Telescope-style voyages into the cosmos. It seems like the ideal cinematic celebration of David Bowie’s career, weaving a tapestry of song selections that comes pretty close to the playlist I would have curated for a project like this. This double-album, though, stands strong on its own, and not as a “best-of” collection, but as an inventive new work of art in which familiar songs are made from various studio recordings and live performances, and sometimes even cover versions by other artists. Each track becomes both a cleverly stitched collage of variations and a movement in a larger symphony. Brett Morgen’s imagination and daring have given Bowie fans a celebration that I suspect Bowie himself is smiling down on with delight.