KEXP is counting down the best records of the year with our annual Best of 2022 Countdown. Ahead of the countdown, KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums from 2022. Make sure to vote for your favorites by December 9 at 7 PM PT and tune in to hear what makes the list on December 16.
Hunched over his drum kit and brass medallion dangling from his neck, Makaya McCraven stunned the crowd. His mind-bending rhythms swirled in the air as I found myself shoulder to shoulder in a packed room of strangers – an experience I’m still getting reacclimated to after years of widespread global isolation. McCraven’s latest album In These Times had been out for just a month and it was already making a huge splash, with many calling it the best work of his career so far. I’d missed this feeling of seeing an artist having “their moment.” And it wasn’t just McCraven, but everyone in his band felt like some of the best musicians I’ve ever seen perform.
I’d nearly skipped out on this experience altogether. In recent years, I’ve gotten really good at making excuses not to do things – even the things that I love. After all the uncertainty of even gathering with small groups of friends and the fatigue of being a new parent, there always seems to be a way to convince myself to stay home and sink into the couch. Add in a dark and stormy night like the evening of McCraven’s show at the Nectar in Seattle and it’s easy to lose motivation to pick up the car keys. But McCraven’s new album had a grip on me. I knew I’d regret missing this moment, an artist at the top of their powers. Music that didn’t just wow me, but felt like it was opening the door to new possibilities – musically and emotionally. For the first time in a long time, it made me feel a bright future was on the horizon.
In These Times is a cinematic experience, with twists and turns that come in changing time signatures and ornate arrangements. “The Fours” moves with a hypnotizing groove – piano lines cutting in and out, saxophones spiraling, mysterious harps ringing, bass rumbling, and McCraven’s awe-inspiring drumming that wavers somehow between jazz and heady electronic music. McCraven says that all of the tracks on the album are in displaced rhythms – unusual meter and polyrhythms. (The exception being the album’s center “This Place, That Place,” recorded in a more standard 4/4 time but with some crazy rhythms that will make your head spin). It’s part of what makes listening to the album again and again so exciting. You don’t need to understand the complexities of McCraven’s drumming to appreciate it. The way he drums is as musical as it is precise. While the album is largely wordless, his drums tell the stories and set the tone.
One of the biggest of the many achievements within In These Times is its accessibility. McCraven produced, arranged, and performs on the album alongside a lengthy list of incredible players. While it’s probably easiest to classify the music as jazz, genre is not McCraven’s top concern. You can feel hip-hop, rock, classical, experimental electronic music, and so much more resonating within every track. I will admit that I felt a little unsure if I was even qualified to speak on a jazz album – a genre I’ve come to love but with a lengthy history I’m still sifting through. But In These Times isn’t about getting mired in the past. It’s about new ways forward. Hearing some of McCraven’s ethos around the idea of “jazz” felt validating as I dug further into the record.
“Being a young musician, I want to interact with the things that creatively inspire me,” McCraven told OkayPlayer’s Zo in an interview this year. “I want all of it to be available to me without having to even really figure out how to define it. Is it hip-hop and jazz? I don’t know. Where do the walls of genre begin? What’s allowed or available to me when there’s so much possible?”
There was much talk throughout the pandemic about coming out of it with new perspective – to not go back to the way things were as a society, as a music industry, you name it. While we’re not through with the pandemic, it’s inspiring to see someone forging a new path. But really, it’s a path McCraven has been creating for himself long before face masks and quarantine.
In These Times came together over seven years, with some songs having their genesis going back to around the time McCraven put out his 2015 debut In The Moment. But it’s more than just having an idea for a song that sits on a shelf until it’s ready. In These Times is constructed from years of recordings made across five different studios and four different live performance spaces. It’s the work of studio wizardry, McCraven working like something of a combination between J Dilla and George Martin. Bits and pieces of nearly a decade of performance are stitched together seamlessly.
McCraven has long championed “post-production” as a crucial part of his process. It’s a fascinating prospect to consider, if not an evolution of what we’ve seen happening across music at large over the last decade or so. It’s a means of taking those organic moments of performance and reenvisioning them in new ways. Software like ProTools and Ableton has certainly made this idea more accessible to musicians, sometimes a double-edged sword for endless tinkering of sound. Bigger than that, post-production serves as a reminder that the work doesn’t have to be done once the tape stops rolling. Recordings capture moments in time, but there’s always room for it to become something else.
This is a tenant of hip-hop production, particularly with sampling that offers new ways to interpret old sounds. We’ve heard elements of jazz make their way frequently into hip-hop, particularly in how its been sampled from groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, and the “Beat Konducta” himself Madlib. And we’ve heard many jazz musicians embrace new ideas that have emerged from hip-hop back into their music – think Questlove, Karriem Riggins, and Seattle’s own Kassa Overall. McCraven certainly brings those ideas into his playing, but the way he embraces hip-hop workflow into his work feels especially unique. He’s essentially sampling himself and the players he’s worked with over these sessions to rework the songs into something they couldn’t have been in a live performance. It’s a collapsing of space and time previously unique to hip-hop. A drum and guitar part on the same song may have come from entirely different sessions, different years, and yet they now exist in the same moment on the finished record.
Having this knowledge of how he made it, my imagination runs amok when I hear a song like “Lullaby.” When was that beautiful, slowly encroaching bassline recorded? Was that piano part always played that way? What evolution led us to this singular transcendent moment of it all coming together? You can copy and paste those questions to every track on the album. For me, it’s impossible to tell where performance ends and production begins. Maybe more attuned ears can better decipher. But even so, it would feel beside the point. The mechanics of how McCraven built it aren’t meant to be seen. He’s not showing off how great of a producer he is as much as he is trying to create a whole piece from disparate parts.
Even so, the process of creating In These Times raises existential questions that go well beyond jazz and hip-hop. It’s the classic conflict of humanity vs machine. The album’s opener and title track begin with the only voice we hear on the album – a recording of the great artist and activist Harry Belafonte waxing on the classic story of John Henry and the steam drill.
"I'd never wanna be known as anybody opposed to progress"
He says, "But this is no longer a matter of progress, or not progress
My brothers, my friends, my cousins have died tryna build this tunnel
And, it just kinda seems to me that nobody has the right to take away our responsibility to finish what these people have died for
Our dignity is involved in it, our integrity
And everything that we believe as working men are involved
So that I ain't really opposed to the machine
I just feel that the machine can't take the place of the soul and the sweat
Of the many men who died to help build this tunnel
And, er, we gotta finish it, and it just ain't no two ways about it”
The allegory of John Henry only becomes more prescient as time has gone on. Our dependency on machines only grows – you’re reading these words on one right now. Of its many interpretations, John Henry and steam drill can be read as prophecy. The allure of progress is a better world. But the drawbacks are what we leave in its wake. It’s a tension we’ll likely always feel and one that McCraven must wrestle with in his own work. Technology has made it easier than ever to make music and art, giving many people access to express themselves in ways they couldn’t before. But what of craftsmanship? What about the human lives and experiences that were more than just stepping stones to get to where we are today? Your phone is more advanced than the tech we had for the first lunar landing, yet it gets outdated practically every year. Progress comes with quite a carbon footprint.
What I take from In These Times is that the way forward comes with honoring the past. McCraven doesn’t fear the machine, he embraces it. Yet there’s still a beating heart at the center of it all. The musicians he employs on the album clearly have spent their lives perfecting their craft, just as McCraven has. It’s also important to note jazz’s history of breaking new ground. Jazz is a legacy of pioneers who constantly sought new ways forward and new ways to develop their sound. The artist who made Kind of Blue is decidedly different from the one who made Bitches Brew. Likewise, McCraven is different from the version of himself who put out In The Moment in 2015.
In that way, McCraven is emblematic of the modern drummer. His work behind the kit is undeniable, possibly one of the best to be doing it right now. But he’s also opened himself up to even more possibilities to translate rhythm, melody, and – above all else – song. Every tool from samplers to sticks is employed in his arsenal, with the studio board as his control center. In These Times is remarkable for striking a balance between the artist and machine. McCraven is continuing to build the tunnel Belafonte talks about, with sweat, wires, and the rhythm that ties them all together.
2022 was the year of the multiverse – though the idea certainly isn’t new. The concept attracted the philosophers of ancient Greece and has been debated by physicists incessantly. But it’s the arts that really latched onto the idea. Comic books popularized the idea in the 1960s (partially as a means to fix their own continuity issues) before it quickly spread to more science fiction and fantasy novels before getting mainstream validation through television like Star Trek. Now the idea is inescapable with the constant onslaught of superhero movies. At one point this year we had two buzzy multiversal films in theatres, Marvel’s Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and the A24 indie darling Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.
While certainly being thrust upon us, it’s no surprise to me that the concept has so captivated our collective imaginations as of late. These past few years (see also: centuries) have been tumultuous. It often feels like there’s always some news meant to kick us down before we can pick ourselves back up from the last earth-shattering revelation. Access to social media has only opened our eyes to the broad scope of atrocities in every corner of the planet. Given all of that, how can you not help but wonder about a different version of our world?
It’s a game I’m sure many of us have played. Pondering choices we’ve made or wondering if things had gone differently at various points in our lives. At best, it gives us clarity on how to do things differently in the future. At its worst, it’s an act of futility. With that in mind, it’s interesting
to consider where these stories about the multiverse often go. Our hero sees how other versions of their life might have played out, seeing what was inevitable and what they missed out on. The resolution often leads to some version of a conclusion from one of the most famous multiversal tales – “there’s no place like home.” But is that really honest? Or is it Stockholm syndrome for our shitty universe? If there are infinite universes with infinite possibilities, surely there’s a better one than this.
I’ve thought about this a lot while listening to In These Times and how McCraven creates his own timeline. The album feels like a utopian version of what he was maybe trying to create throughout all of those various sessions mentioned earlier. Instead of settling on one version of the songs, he was able to take the parts that he liked best and realize the perfect vision in his head. That’s power out of reach for even the Sorcerer Supreme, apparently.
I’m envious of McCraven’s musical, time-bending superpowers. While I’m tired of writing about the pandemic, it’s hard not to. It’s a fresh wound and a common denominator we all share now. Hell, it’s maybe the only thing we all have in common at this point. March 2020 marked a moment all of our lives came to halt, like pulling the emergency break on the highway.
For myself, it felt like my life was on a different trajectory before Covid-19. Traveling the world, throwing myself into my work, and staying out late any night I wanted to. Then there was this great pause and I came out the other side with a different life. Many of my relationships changed, for good and bad. I’m a father now, the greatest thing that’s ever happened to be, but which itself comes with a drastic lifestyle change. And there are now worries constantly looming over my head – the worry, guilt, and uncertainty of if any activity is actually safe to do and wondering if another variant will hit and send us back to 2020. For those of us who lost someone in the pandemic, these fears still weigh heavily.
And yet, I find myself lurching toward hope. The world is different now; I am different now. The issues and worries haven’t resolved themselves. But I’m feeling ready to build new habits. To take this period of uncertainty and reform the ideas I’ve mulled over again and again to forge a fresh start. It’s what I hear McCraven doing all over In These Times. Our future depends on our past. We have the choice to take the fragments of our histories and imagine something new for ourselves. Maybe it’s a kaleidoscopic jazz masterpiece. Or maybe it’s holding my daughter close to my chest while we watch a band together.
What is the present if not just an amalgamation of our past? We have no choice but to live “in these times.”
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