But we’re here for 2022! Before we go further, let’s do a quick overview of the three categories:
Yes– These are albums that could be in the running for the year’s best. We’ve ended up with153 yesses, so every eventual winner will have vanquished 7 competitors to get to the finish line.
Maybe– But wait, that’s not all! These are those albums that definitely had something going for them, but also gave me pause. Because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”, I’m giving them another listen too. There are 136 competitors in this category.
No– Then there’s “no”. Ending up here doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crap. You do sometimes end up here because you’re crap. But other times you can be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and ambitious, but not quite pulling it off. The arena is a brutal place!
And now, with our categories established, we shall proceed with the review of 114 new releases from November and December 2022!
$ilkmoney, I Don’t Give a Fuck About This Rap Shit, Imma Just Drop Until I Don’t Feel Like It Anymore– The title is solid gold to start with, but what’s really extraordinary here is that it’s a psychedelic album and a socially conscious one in a 90s kind of vein, but with the swagger and musical muscularity of gangster rap. One can’t always quite tell whether it’s embracing or deflating either genre. Both simultaneously? It also contains one of the best cannibalism songs I’ve ever heard!
Big Joanie, Back Home– It’s got a 90s alt rock feeling, with variously surprising electronic, folk and soul undertones, and the rich and ragged depths of lead singer Stephanie Phillips’s voice are the perfect accompaniment to the music. They are apparently a Black feminist British punk trio. Well a-freakin’-men!
Coco & Clair Clair, Sexy– Think about a feminist but irreverent take on hip-hop. Now make it lyrically hilariously sharp and cutting, and musically multi-layered and unusual while being sugar-sweet. This was just a solidly fun listen!
Dazy, Outofbody– This debut project of Virginia-based James Goodson is by turns a little punky, a little emo, a little 60s garagey, a little grungy, a little poppy, and always big on fuzzy guitars and feedback. Would that all kids who aspire to rock out do this well, because these kids are all right!
Little Simz, No Thank You– Her album sometimes I might be introvert made my honorable mention in 2021, so I came in here well-disposed. And deservedly so! There’s a chanting spell to her vocal flow, lyrics full of poetic phrasing and personal and social importance, and a dynamic and variable musical mix that makes use of multiple idioms of R&B and soul music. Another strong contender from this UK hip-hop artists.
Lyrics Born, Vision Board– I love the dub and ska influences, I love the wacky wit that reminds me of when hip-hop was hilarious in the 80s and early 90s, and the musical mix and vocals have a strong whiff of that era as well. This music functions in both hip hop and R&B modes, and it’s brilliant, if weirdly retro, in both. Along with his very different album from earlier this year, it shows just how this versatile an artist he is.
R.A.P. Ferreira, 5 to the Eye With Stars– I was impressed by this Wisconsin hip-hop artist’s album The Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures last year, and this has many of those same charms. It’s like a lost era of hip-hop in some ways- philosophical, poetic, conscious, given to wild wordplay and lively musical mix. This isn’t by accident, as the name check of an Arrested Development song in one track demonstrates. But it also sounds thoroughly contemporary in a way, and certainly not like something plucked from a museum.
Run the Jewels, RTJ Cu4tro– Re-recordings and re-workings of previous year’s albums are not uncommon in this list, but this one has an especially interesting premise: “It’s a reimagining of RTJ4 through the lens of collaboration and a fusing of numerous musical cultures and influences,” and was made exclusively with Latin collaborators. This works in the best kind of way, taking what was one of my favorite albums from 2020 and making it into something genuinely new, and worthy on its own.
Special Interest, Endure– This New Orleans band’s album is punky, clashing, exuberant! I’ll tell you it’s like a riot grrrl sound heavily informed by dance music, post-punk, and electro, and you’ll form an image that will be rightish, but won’t really let you know how high quality it is, how varied, or how wild.
Uni Boys, Do It All Next Week– This Los Angeles band knows how to do some good old fashioned (circa 70s) Rock and Roll. It’s power poppy, with hand claps, hooks, and just the right mixture of sleaze, sweetness, and bratty whining. I’m glad somebody still knows how to do this!
Boldy James & Cuns, Be That as It May– I did like the mix here a lot, and indeed Boldy James’s production has been behind many things on the hip-hop front I’ve liked over the last two+ years. (Cuns was previously unknown to me, and is apparently an Italian hip-hop producer known for his affiliation for vinyl. I can hear it!) I wasn’t quite as sold on the vocal flow and the lyrics, but they had their moments and carried along with the mix, it’s a complete package worth considering!
Brendan Benson, Low Key– This album from Raconteurs member Benson displays that group’s sure feeling for classic sources, in this case turning in a decidedly 60s ornate pop and 70s power-pop and prog pop influenced sound. It’s halfway to being a museum piece, but it’s a darn good exhibit.
Caitlin Rose, Cazimi– This Nashville-based singer-songwriter has a voice that really sticks, with a powerful but plaintive quality. Musically, this is a combination of country influence and something that sounds much more like indie rock in a 90s alt vein. I was sometimes wavering, but then golden moments kept bringing me back. So I guess I’m a maybe!
Fleshwater, We’re Not Here To Be Loved– This sounds like it fell straight out of the 90s. And I mean that in the best kind of way! Imagine that a good album somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection of Soundgarden, Veruca Salt, and My Bloody Valentine was somehow lost and had just been re-discovered. Obviously derivative in a way, but I can’t help myself, I dig what this Massachusetts group is doing!
Foushee, Softcore– This New Jersey singer/songwriter is showing up with sassy attitude, emotionally complex lyrics, and musical styles that take in blistering hardcore, inventive electronic dance, delicate indie, and pop sweetness. All this comes at the expense of coherence, but her presence and verve do hold it together in a way.
Mud Morganfield, Portrait– Son of Muddy Waters! This is a rework of a 2012 album, with two new songs. It sound like muscular 60s blues, contemporary smooth blues, but also has goodly dollops of soul, R&B, and gospel. It also very consciously plays up his father’s legacy. All-in-all, it’s a reworking, and a familiar sound, but there’s a lot to like here.
Spoon, Lucifer on the Moon– A dub re-mix from UK dub producer extraordinaire Adrian Sherwood of their album Lucifer on the Couch from earlier this year. As with many dub remixes, I like it better than the original! In this case, taking their somewhat arty indie rock album and remixing it turns it into something truly new and different.
454, Fast Trax 3– Albeit high energy and clever, a super-autotuned hip-hop album at this point in the year is a nyet. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Adrian Quesada, Jaguar Sound– Some good and kind of trippy electronic music, but ultimately didn’t engage me.
AKAI SOLO, Spirit Roaming– I was kind of on the fence here. This was, without question, a sophisticated and complex hip hop album. Earlier in the year it probably would have made my “maybe” list. But we’re so late in the year, it’s only knock it out of the park territory now!
Amos Lee, My Ideal: A Tribute to Chet Baker Sings– Modern master Amos Lee takes on the music of Jazz pioneer Chet Baker” is a good concept. Ultimately it’s a very period-specific feel, but jazz aficionados would be well served.
Apollo Brown, This Must Be the Place– Unlike his February collaboration Blacklight, this album finds Detroit producer Brown in a very jazzy instrumental place. It was good, but I did not find myself there with him.
Asake, Mr. Money With the Vibe– Ahmed Ololade, known professionally as Asake, is a Nigerian Afrobeats singer and songwriter. The mix here really won me over, and the energy kept me engaged, but eventually the autotune started to make things a little too repetitive. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Baby Tate, Mani/Pedi– Damn I like this from the get-go. Vintage 2020s in your face, full of attitude and humor feminist rap (aka “pussy rap”) is my jam. It was headed to automatic yes until a weird back to back slow-down set 2/3 of the way through. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Babyface Ray, MOB– There’s definitely some power here, but too much of it feels like the “mumbled” school of hip hop.
Backxwash, His Happiness Shall Come First Even Though We Are Suffering– Noise rock? Experimental music? Metallically heavy conscious hip-hop? Really some of all of the above! It’s a little too all of these for consistent listening, but it is interesting.
Bbyafricka, The Art of Geekin’– There is a driving glower to this hip-hop album, and some lyrical heft, but ultimately it ends up feeling a little thin musically. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Bill Nace, Through a Room– Grating machine electronic music. Actually, pretty good for grating machine electronic music.
Billy Strings, Me/And/Dad– It’s certainly a sweet premise- modern purveyor of bluegrass Billy Strings records an album with his father, who taught him how to play. It is solid traditional bluegrass, and certainly won’t steer someone looking for that sound wrong, but it doesn’t stand out in a “best of year” kind of way.
Blackstarkids, Cyberkiss*– The fun and inventive mix of conscious-flavored hip-hop, electronic, and experimental rock is a pretty winning combination. It gets a little indistinct and doesn’t totally come together as an album, but I’m in for seeing what this Kansas group gets in for in the future. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Brittle Brian, Biodiesel– An interesting emotional down-tone, a little jangly, a little fuzzy, but it gets to be too same track to track. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
BROCKHAMPTON, The Family– This multi-racial hip-hop collective that’s redefining the meaning of “boy band” got pretty high in my 2021 rankings with their previous album. This one doesn’t quite have the impact and clarity of that, but I do still appreciate what they do.
Bruce Springsteen, Only the Strong Survive– “Bruce Springsteen does an album of soul classics” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of him. But when you hear it, it fits with his soulful searching side, and it’s obvious how much he appreciates the material. And these are, to be sure, good solid covers. They’re a little too reverent as covers go, and, being recorded in one time and place, also a little indistinct track to track. Certainly a nice rounding out of the catalogue for Springsteen fans (of which i am one!), but not a “year’s best”.
Carla dal Forno, Come Around– There is something about the beautiful poetic swirl of the lyrics, elfin vocals, and delicate oddly accented folk-electronic touches that makes this very compelling. Eventually it got to be too the same track-to-track, but I did find a lot to appreciate.
CEO Trayle, HH5– I liked the horrorcore elements, but otherwise the flow and mix of this hip-hop album were a little too indistinct.
Cerrone, Cerrone by Cerrone– This continuous set of re-mixed songs of disco pioneer Cerrone is definitely top-level dance music, but I’m not sure it adds up to an album.
Chris Isaak, Everybody Knows It’s Christmas– I go into a Christmas album somewhat hostile, but a rocking-themed one warms my Scroogey heart a little, and I go into anything by Chris Isaak open for a listen. And it is all pretty well rendered, even if I don’t think it adds up to a “year’s best”.
Chris Liebing/Ralf Hildenbeutel, Another Night– Club retooling of their album Another Day from 2021. These are good high energy tracks, but two hours of it does not a coherent listenable album make.
Christine and the Queens, Redcar les adorables étoiles– Sophisticated, multilayered, somewhat eerie and discordant adult pop. It was ultimately a little too disembodied, and too mostly in French, for me.
Coby Sey, Conduit– Some intense electronic music themed hip hop, it certainly sets a mood, but is eventually too abstract and discordant to work at album length. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Contour, Onwards!– Soulful and jazzy and mellow and too much of a steady groove that fades into the background. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Daniel Avery, Ultra Truth– Kind of a Vangelis soundtrack version of electronic music. It’s fine as far as it goes.
David Bowie, Moonage Daydream: A Film by Brett Morgen– This is a lovely amalgam of dialogue snippets, live performances, and remixes, but at a more than two-hour running time it’s prohibitive to listen to as an album. Bowie fans (including me!) might rightly treasure it though.
Dead Meadow, Force Form Free– My sources tell me that Dead Meadow is an American psychedelic rock band formed in Washington, D.C. in 1998. I really liked their sludgy heavy intro track. The sprightlier subsequent track was so different it threw me for a loop. Overall, still good, but as an all-instrumental album with longish tracks and no coherent theme…
Drake & 21 Savage, Her Loss– I do like Drake, but this collaboration is way into the monotone mumble over-autotuned style of hip-hop.
Dream Unending, Song of Salvation– 5 long songs of ornamented symphonic metal with indecipherable growl vocals. It’s a sound. It’s a common sound. But it’s not my sound…
Duke Deuce, MEMPHIS MASSACRE III– It’s got a bit of a horrorcore rap feeling, and some gonzo attitude to the flow and lyrics, but is too monotone track-to-track to sustain.
Dumb, Pray 4 Tomorrow– A better than average young Vancouver punk band putting out a better than average young punk band album.
Duval Timothy, Meeting With a Judas Tree– A nice somewhat jazzy, somewhat experimental instrumental album.
Ezra Collective, Where I’m Meant to Be– The first track was jazz-informed, left-field, sunny and exuberant hip hop. The second was a Latin jazz live instrumental. Next up was something in-between. It was all musically very good, and wouldn’t let fans of this style down, but not sure it’s a stand-out of the year.
Fenella, The Metallic Index– This was much less metallic than I was expecting from the title. More swirly new-age electronic. Eh.
Field School, When Summer Comes– A nice jangly fuzzy album that would have sounded good in the alt 80s or 90s, and still does, but sort of same track to track and not especially new or different or better.
First Aid Kit, Palomino– The vocals are powerful from this Swedish folk duo, and the music is some good old fashioned indie pop with a dance edge. If it were earlier in the year, they might make my “maybe” list, but we’re getting late, so only surer things are making it through now. Alas!
Fitz and the Tantrums, Let Yourself Free– Fitz and the Tantrums is state of the art for a good enough 2000s somewhat indie very radio friendly band. Some great singles come out of their approach, but I don’t know that anything adds up to an album.
For Tracy Hide, Hotel Insomnia– This Tokyo dream pop band’s ninth album is a stuffed to the gills kaleidoscope of dream pop, J-pop, neo-psychedelia, with a lot of just plain fun. Eventually through language, length, and sheer sonic overload it stopped working for me as an album, but they do work it!
Gold Panda, The Work– Nice sparkling ethereal electronic music. Nah.
Harvey Mandel, Who’s Calling– An instrumental album feeling like something in the vicinity of prog rock with some jazz fusion thrown in. Not bad by any means, but didn’t set in as an album for me.
Heather Trost, Desert Flowers– It’s not bad-electronica, given to organ sounds, some nicely rough edges, elfin vocals. But no.
Hieroglyphic Being, There Is No Acid In This House– More electronic. Much electronic. I do like something about the repetitive hypnosis of this one. But no.
Honey Dijon, Black Girl Magic– There’s some great music here, with great focus, but a little sprawling, unfocused and blending too much track to track to work as an album.
Infinity Knives/Brian Ennals, King Cobra– 30 songs in 30 minutes is intriguing as set-ups go! And there are indeed some interesting approaches scattered around this hip-hop album, but a lot of it is too similar track-to-track.(Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
James K, Random Girl– I think there were some interesting things going on here. It was so abstract and ambient it was hard to tell. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Jeb Loy Nichols, United States of the Broken Hearted– Subtle low-key songs in a country/blues vein with lyrical depth, painting what the title seems to promise- a collection of dusty scattered portraits of the down and out. I do dig what this Wales-based American singer/songwriter is doing, even if it did become a bit too low-key and same track to track to sustain eventually.
Joji, Smithereens– Mot bad musically or lyrically, but a little too shimmery low key same vocally and musically.
Julie Odell, Autumn Eve– I appreciate the swirl and the shimmer of this, but it becomes too gauzy all the same.(Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Julien Chang, The Sale– It’s jazzy, abstract, low-key, arty. Not bad, but no.
La Femme, Teatro Lucido– Paradigmes was one of my semi-finalists for 2022, so I was curious to hear the new album. It has a lot of the verve and gleeful musical stylistic mix I appreciated from their last album, and an even higher level of multicultural coverage with the French band working with Latin musical forms and Spanish lyrics. Eventually too many lull moments and the language barrier prevented me from really attaching to it, but I appreciate what this group does!
Laura Jean, Amateurs– This had an interesting dark and charging feel with minor chords and vocals and lyrics reminiscent of 90s alt songstresses early on, but eventually became too lilting quiet folk later on.
Lykotonon, Promethean Pathology– Per Pitchfork: “Members of Blood Incantation, Wayfarer, Stormkeep, and anonymous other groups comprise Lykotonon, who make industrial metal with lashings of black and death metal. The Denver outfit describes its sound as “a digitized descent into the darker side of the human psyche””. So, you know, I was rooting for it on description alone. And the mix of metal industrial and electronic is interesting. Not quite consistently listenable at album length, but good.
Meekz, Respect the Come Up– A good outing from this Manchester rapper, and it reminds favorably of a lot of contemporary UK hip-hop, but I don’t know that it “whole year” stands out from it.
Metro Boomin, Heroes & Villains– This album does have an epic scale, and the opening had a really good start along those lines, but it descended into over-autotuned production soon after.
Militarie Gun, All Roads Lead to the Gun (Deluxe)- Repackages last year’s dual EPs from this Los Angeles band along with four new songs. This reminds me of 80s hardcore in the best way- guitar churning, semi-shouted lyrics, angst-full, noisy, but strangely melodic. It feels a little too bounded in what it is to be getting to “best of year” status, but I do appreciate it!
Mocky, Goosebumps Per Minute, Vol. 1– Nice energetic electronic. I didn’t hate it!
Moin, Paste– Doesn’t totally come together for me, but I enjoyed this collection of 90s sounding guitar riffs, electronic noise, and philosophical mumbles.
Mount Kimbie, MK 3.5: Die Cuts | City Planning– British hip-hop and electronic mix. Eh.
Nathan Salsburg, Landwerk No. 3– With over an hour run length, and only six tracks, this would have to be doing something pretty arresting to get one to hang in there. In fact, it’s a series of pretty, muted instrumental pieces. Not without worthy craft, but didn’t work for me.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, World Record– As mentioned in previous reviews, Neil Young is in my all-time top 5 artists, so I’m going to listen to, and probably absorb into my collection, most anything he puts out. That being said, this is definitely not one of his more “on” albums. It has excellent Crazy Horse shredders, mellow golden-hued life reflections, but can’t quite seem to find the tone between them.
Nickelback, Get Rollin’– A new Nickelback album in 2022 sounds like a Nickelback album form the early 00s. You either like that or you don’t so much. My rating here answers that question for me.
NNAMDI, Please Have a Seat– I like the neo-psych touches and the incorporation of guitar, but eventually gets too autotuned, and feels unfocused.
Okay Kaya, SAP– While unquestionably high-quality, this was a little low key and abstract for me. She’s still my favorite Norwegian-American musician and actress though!
Phobophilic, Enveloping Absurdity– As contemporary metal romps go, this is a pretty good one! Maybe not best of year good, but if you’re looking for some good solid metaling out, this won’t mislead you. (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Phoenix, Alpha Zulu– 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was one of my favorite albums of well…the whole millennium thus far! So, I come in well-disposed. And indeed, this album has many of the things I love about this French group- the exuberant musicality, the sunny energy. But maybe without quite the punch of the earlier work, more lulls, more sounds we’ve heard before from them. I wouldn’t kick it out of musical bed, but it’s not best of year.
Quinn Christopherson, Write Your Name in Pink– The searching and high quality pop her is affecting, even if it is sometimes a little too 2020s radio-indie smooth. But it lulled out a little too often to work as a sustained album.
Randy Houser, Note to Self– It got a little too formulaic eventually, but this album is about the best case that can be made for contemporary pop country. It’s audibly operating in that space, but with traditional country call-backs, and generally a sense of authenticity.
Rauw Alejandro, SATURNO– This Puerto Rican performer’s album started off in an interesting synth/techno vein, and remained interesting on the mix side, but descended rapidly into autotunmania.
Reace Sosa, Big Zap– There is some personality here, and a kind of sinister drive, but not enough about this hip-hop album distinguishes itself from a lot else that sounds like this this year.(Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Richard Dawson, The Ruby Cord– It’s over an hour long, and it opens with a 41-minute track that mostly seems to feature infinitesimally slow drumming and occasional muted rises and dips of strumming and horns. It’s a shame, because there is an interesting weirdly off-kilter neo-folk thing going on once it gets to later smaller tracks. But nyet!
RM, Indigo– As far as smooth mid-tempo Korean hip-hop albums go, this is one.
Roddy Ricch, Feed Tha Streets III– Not without merit, but boy is that autotuned.
Röyksopp, Profound Mysteries III– I had the same feeling about this as Profound Mysteries I & II, which is that it’s beautiful and sophisticated electronic music, but may be a little too blended track to track add up to a stand-out album as such.
rRoxymore, Perpetual Now– Somewhat abstract and very muted electronic. It is smart and interesting, but I don’t see it as an album that gets played again and again.
Seahawks, Infinite Echo– The decryption I saw read: “Taking influence from the writings of the late peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, the self-described “anti-dystopian” album incorporates vocal software programs designed by Lyra Pramuk and Holly Herndon, as well as the voice of Mindar, a Buddhist robot priest.” It’s actually not as interesting as that promised, very muted, almost fade into the background.
Smino, Luv 4 Rent– There is some personality here, and a kind of quirky edge, but not enough about this hip-hop album distinguishes itself from a lot else that sounds like this this year.
Smut, How the Light Felt– good chimey indie rock that would have sounded very at home in the 90s. It still sounds good now, but maybe not stand-out best of year good.
Sophie Jamieson, Choosing- An articulate and heartfelt acoustic album, but too much all in one tone song-to-song to sustain at album length.
St. Lucia, Utopia– Pretty, exuberant, a kind of 80s sound dance/pop sound. Eh.
Stormzy, This Is What I Mean– Some really pretty good UK hip-hop, with the smoothness and jazzy quality one often finds there. Not sure it stands out in an above and beyond way, though.
Suzi Analogue, Infinite Zonez– An interesting electronic/club mix here, a little on the abstract side, and not sure if it adds up to an album.(Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Svengali, Cakes da Killa– There is an interesting old school sound to this, reminding of the late 80s Boogie-Down Productions, and some of the jazzier/groovier side of conscious hip-hop. Certainly not unworthy, but we’re late in the year here so the bar is high!
SZA, S.O.S.- Her album “Ctrl” was one of my favorites from my review of the 2010s, so I’m well-disposed. And this is certainly high quality, but lacks the coherence to pull off its length, and the stand-out nature of tracks to get to year’s best. So, “merely” a good album by a good artist. Could not hurt to have more of those!
Tenci, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing– There’s an interesting quirky experimental nature to this music, but it’s a little too muted and low-key to really kick in as an album proper.
Thaiboy Digital, Back 2 Life– Autotunnnnnnnnneeeeeeeeeeeee
The Lone Below, Love Songs For Losers– “Honey” is a great single, I’ve been hearing it all over the radio lately and it belongs there. My question going in to this was therefore if the album holds up as a whole. And, well… It’s not bad, but it’s not stand-out enough in total.
Theo Parrish, DJ-Kicks: Theo Parrish– This Detroit DJ wields his three decades in the community to put forward a variety of mixes featuring collaborators and styles from throughout the city’s storied musical history. Three hours of it though, well, it’s hard to get an album to work end to end at that length. There is plenty of great material here though!
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Empire of Light (Original Score)– The presence of Trent Reznor in this soundtrack for the Sam Mendes film made me curious enough to give it a try. It turns out to be a very proper, somewhat ambient-tending film score, without much hint of Nine Inch Nails. Very fine, but not the cup of tea we’re looking to sip here!
Turnover, Myself in the Way– It’s smooth, it’s jazzy, it’s funky, it’s fusion. It’s a no.
Valee, Vacabularee– Mumbly indistinct hip-hop
Various Artists, Music from Saharan WhatsApp– A kind of sampler of the South Saharan music scene via WhatsApp submissions, I’m intrigued by the content and the conceit. And the music is very interesting and varied too. Does it entirely work as an album? No. But does it function as a pointer toward an interesting and dynamic musical area? Yes! (Note: This is not actually a November release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Fall list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Various Artists, Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver– A tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, a pioneer of outlaw country who passed in 2020, by an array of country and country-adjacent musicians old and new. In terms of source and treatment, it’s good, but maybe a little too twice-derived to work as a “best of year” album. Anyone interested in this school of country music wouldn’t be steered wrong by it though!
Waajeed, Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz– It petered out into too mellow and too babbling just toward the end, but until that point the cool urban jazz heavily informed by hip hop on display here was winning me over.
Weyes Blood, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow– Recognizably of a Lana Del Rey kind of set, and not a bad member of it. At its best, really good. But not consistent or original enough.
White Lung, Premonition– Some fine rock, sometimes 90s grungy, sometimes metallic. It sounds a little too of a period for year’s best, I think.
Young Dolph, Paper Route Frank– This posthumous album from a Memphis rapper does have a strong billowing presence to it. Earlier in the year, it probably would have at least made my “maybe” list, but now it’s the next to last album I’m listening to for 2022. Competition is fierce!
Your Old Droog, YOD Presents: The Shining– This is apparently the 6th release this year from the Ukrainian-born Brooklyn rapper. Well, okay! There’s a lot of with and cleverness in the lyrics and mix, and again, this is something that probably would have been a “maybe” earlier in the year. But we are finis!
And with that, we have finished reviewing November and December 2022’s new releases. Now on to The Final Reckoning…
Before we go further with 2022, let’s do a quick overview of the three categories:
Yes– These are albums that could be in the running for the year’s best. As of October we have 143 yesses, so there’s going to be a bloody reckoning.
Maybe– These are the albums that definitely have something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. But because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”, we’ll give them another listen too. This category now has another 129 victims for bloody reckoning.
No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crap. You do sometimes end up there because you’re crap. But other times you can be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and ambitious, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to “yes” isn’t easy!
And now, with our categories established, let’s get underway with the review of 106 new October releases!
Avantasia, A Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society– Between the descriptor “German metal supergroup whose works have often been compared to operas” and the album name, you may have some inkling that you’re in for something overwrought. And it is true in the most glorious of ways! It’s as if multiple strands of 80s metal- British New Wave, hair metal, European metal a la the Scorpions, a dash of Heart, got together to produce their very own rock opera. It’s as unapologetically over the top as it should be, and it makes my heart smile.
Betty Who, Big– On one level, this Australian-American singer-songwriter and musician has put out an album that is a straightforward 2020’s dance album. But her personality, the darker lyrical depth, the nods to 90s dance pop, and the sheer verve behind the songs take it to a whole other level.
Drugdealer, Hiding in Plain Sight– This project of Michael Collins, a veteran of LA-area psychedelic bands for the past 20 years, focuses on a soft rock sound that could have drifted straight up from Topanga Canyon in 1972. I say that not to be dismissive, it genuinely sounds not just like music from that era, but like great music from that era, so familiar it’s practically heartbreaking, but still fresh and breathing. Bravo!
Lee Fields, Sentimental Fool– Fields became a “sudden” success in his 40s with a classic soul sound and is now 71. He continues to be in great form here, with a sound recalling 60s and 70s R&B.
Tegan and Sara, Crybaby– The sure feeling for pop, the exposure of personal thoughts and feelings, the driving energy, the weirdness- all the best things about Tegan and Sara are here, with layered production and unusual musical and vocal choices bringing a twist to every track. It doesn’t feel totally together, but it more than makes up for it by being consistently compelling and interesting.
The Bobby Lees, Bellevue– You start with a picture of a woman in dirty coveralls sitting in a pig pen for the cover, and I’m pre-charmed. I might have expected something a little country-fried based on that, but what’s actually here is a muscular, rocking, feminist musical assault bringing to mind Babes in Toyland, L7, and early Hole. This Woodstock, New York band’s album is the kind of thing that grabs you by the throat with the first track and doesn’t let go from there. Amen!
The Reds, Pinks & Purples, They Only Wanted Your Soul– In addition to repeatedly using pictures from my old neighborhood in San Francisco for album covers, I love this brainchild of auteur Glenn Donaldson for its shimmery, fuzzy guitar soundscapes, which plot the exact right co-sine between distortion and sweet pop melody.
Todd Rundgren, Space Force– I like Todd Rundgren both for his own music and his work as a producer going back to the 70s, and also I like a good concept. This is an interesting one- he solicited other songwriters from a variety of genres for unfinished songs they’d abandoned, and he completed and recorded them. As befits the concept, it doesn’t exactly sound coherent or unified. But as befits Rundgren, there is a kind of unity in production approach, and a madcap genius behind it holding it all together.
Willow, coping mechanism– Her album LATELY I feel everything was one of my “honorable mention” listees of 2021, and this has the same kind of energy and challenge to it. If anything, it goes further, with the hard rock 90s edges and R&B ballad sensibilities even more organically blended and balanced, and the lyrics and vocals feeling even more personal.
Bill Callahan, Ytilaer– There’s a quiet but driving, minor chord, dusty sketches of life quality to the goings on here. It’s mostly that, but sometimes also given over to quirky songs with a jazz jam feeling. And I more than once had the feeling that I was listening to the Doors if the Doors had done a Western soundtrack. Callahan was a pioneer of lo-fi indie rock in the late 80s with his band Smog and continues to be challenging today. If I’m not quite sure the parts here hold together, those parts were so good that I still want to listen to it again.
Dry Cleaning, Stumpwork– Their album New Long Leg was in my top 21 list for 2021. This has many of the same charms- the harsh and angular but also clever and interesting post-punk musical approach, and the dry wit of the spoken word vocals by lead singer Florence Shaw. I’m a little unsure simply because it’s so like its predecessor. But is being like a really good thing a sin?
Goat, Oh Death– This Swedish psychedelic band is known for fusing their psyche sound with world music, which you will hear here, but that undersells how weird it is. There are equal parts distorted garage rock, jazz solos, and African dance rhythms. It makes it a little hard to hold on to, but also perpetually fascinating track to track.
Kenny Mason, RUFFS– There’s something about this album’s mix of rock and hip-hop. That in itself is not a new thing, at all, but here it feels very integral- metallic rock and driving hip hop are both authentic musical languages to this Atlanta rapper, and it shows in his fusion of them.
Loyle Carner, Hugo– This UK hip-hop artist has produced an album that is thick with intelligence, personal material, socially significant tie-ins on race and identity, and a sophisticated musical mix. I’m a little unsure about whether there’s enough variety in the vocal flow and mix track to track, but it’s still compelling.
Meghan Trainor, Takin’ It Back– I started off thinking that, while I am forever grateful to Meghan Trainor for bringing booty back, I wasn’t sure I needed an entire new album. Then I rapidly began to succumb to all the charms of her big hit song from a few years ago- the energy and positivity, unafraid quality of being a little goony, and the musical approach of joining electronic dance with some of the dance forms of yesteryear. There are some moments where it slowed down for me, sometimes it leaned a little heavily on the autotune, but this album is undoubtedly fun.
Paul Heaton/Jacqui Abbott, N.K-Pop– This is a collaboration of the founding members of the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it sounds like that 80’s melody and hook-heavy, syrupy yet biting era/school of British pop. In a way almost a time capsule musically, but the lyrics here, both in topicality and in their point of view, recognize that this is more than 30 years later, and show some wisdom and weariness. I’m hedging because of how perfectly of its former era it sounds, and yet how contemporary it is in other ways.
Sloan, Steady– This got off to a nice no fuss no muss rocking start. It’s got a power-pop feeling as well, a pinch of 70s Beatles-inspired sounds, and more than a little on the glam side of bubble gum (or the bubble gum side of glam?). This is the 13th album from this Canadian group, and they have been doing this since 1993. It’s not the freshest approach in the world, but darned if I ever had a bad time with a single track.
Sobs, Air Guitar– This Singapore indie pop band’s album is the second time this year I have come across an Asia-based band delivering nearly perfect-sounding 90s alt rock, in this case in the rocking but still pop vein of say, Letters for Cleo or Liz Phair. It seems a little museum piece to give an unreserved “yes” to, but it’s also too damn much fun to ignore.
A.A. Williams, As the Moon Rests– It’s moody, it’s atmospheric, it’s not bad if you want something in the surging orchestral neo-goth space. But is it particularly more or better than other things in the surging orchestral neo-goth space?
Abraxas, Monte Carlo– There is something to be said for the minor chord atmospherics and dramatic vocals here, it reminds one of a certain surf/60s rock America with a gonzo edge. Eventually a little too low energy and same track to track though.
Adrian Sherwood, Dub No Frontiers– Veteran UK reggae producer Adrian Sherwood takes a cosmopolitan approach to dub here, and it would make a great mellow background soundtrack, but I don’t think it lingers the way a year’s best needs to.
a-ha, True North– It’s nice to hear a-ha back, and they’re very sophisticated in this outing, but it’s a little too low key and smoothly produced to really stand out.
Alvvays, Blue Rev– If you’re looking for a My Bloody Valentine shimmer of noise with a hint of jangle pop, look here.
Aoife Nessa Frances, Protector– This Dublin singer-songwriter produces a nice neo-folk swirl, but all a little too same track to track to really stand out.
Arches of Loaf, Reason in Decline– An American indie rock band that started out on the 90s, broke up, and then reformed, and it sounds like many eras of indie rock from the 90s forward. Not bad if you want a good indie-leaning guitar-based band, but a little too smooth and prefab.
Arctic Monkeys, The Car– They had one of my favorite albums of the 2010’s with AM, and I suppose I was expecting something similarly rocking here. Instead, they’re in a much croonier mood, really somewhat reminiscent of David Bowie on his ballad side. It’s not bad, but it’s also not arresting or distinct.
Ariel Zetina, Cyclorama– a beacon for the queer electronic underground. Playing trance-techno sets informed by her identity as a trans woman of Belizean descent. Some of that does show up in the music, and is fascinating when it does, but it tends a little too toward the abstract end of techno.
Armani Caesar, The Liz 2– There’s high concept her in this albums interest in divas, high feminism in the “pussy rap” vein, and some pounding music and lyrical incision. If it doesn’t quite all come together, well, ambition is a reward in itself.
Ashe, Rae– Singer songwriter in a musically smooth, lyrically arch vein a la a lot of others out there now. This is fine, but it doesn’t especially stand out from the pack.
Babehoven, Light Moving Time– There’s a vocal and musical beauty to this Hudson NY group, but the kind of folky kind of country gauziness of it all gets a little too gauzy to sustain.
Bandmanrill, Club Godfather– This debut mixtape from Newark, New Jersey rapper Bandmanrill is a fine hip-hop album. It’s too late in the year for albums that are merely fine.
Bibio, Bib10– A little art rock, a little neo-disco, a lot of mellow, more than a bit of no thanks.
billy woods, Church– I do like what billy woods does, as witness aethiopes ending up on my April “yes” list. Maybe it’s the comparison to that, to which this doesn’t quite measure up in coherence or originality, which did it in.
Bladee, Spiderr– I do love my Scandinavian artists (Swedish in this case), and this fun and goofy overdrive version of electronica was working for me for quite a while. It eventually blended into too much track-to-track sameness though.
Brian Eno, FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE– Brain Eno is one of those artists who I have enormous respect for, both for his Roxy Music and solo albums in the 70s, and his production work in the 80s, but I rarely succeed in actually liking his contemporary albums. That happened here- it’s all a little too abstract and hushed for me. Alas!
Broken Bells, Into the New– The experimental indie pop duo of the Shins’ James Mercer and Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse). I liked it when it sounded like the Shins. I still liked it, but didn’t as much think it stood out, when it had a kind of 80s pop side of prog rock sound.
Bush, The Art of Survival– I must begin by stipulating that I really liked the sound of this album. If it was 1996, I might have it in heavy rotation. But do we really need Bush to be perfectly recreating their 90s sound in 2022?
Carly Rae Jepsen, The Loneliest Time– She does a good brand of pop that combines dance music and some serious singer-songwriter skills, and she’s doing it well here, but better than a lot of other contemporaries?
Charlie Puth, Charlie– As autotuned young pretty boy pop goes, this is.
Charlotte dos Santos, Morfo– She has a beautiful voice and idiosyncratic vocal style, but it seems a little thin and over-produced musically.
Courtney Marie Andrews, Loose Future– She’s a fine singer-songwriter, with an acoustic country and folk-inflected sound, but it gets to be too track-to-track same in terms of vocals, music, and tempo.
Daphni, Cherry– Nice mid-tempo electronic music. It would be great to do the dishes to.
Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn, Pigments– It’s mellow, it’s folktronic, its new agey, it’s a little bit jazz. Please save me.
Douglas McCombs, VMAK– An abstract instrumental three-song suite, and not without compelling features, but couldn’t quite lay my hands on it.
Dragonette, Twennies– The electronic dance music here had enough unusual and indie twist, and sheer verve of personality, to keep me invested for a while, but eventually didn’t sustain.
Dungen, En Är För Mycket och Tusen Aldrig Nog– I do like my Swedish collectives, and this album had some fun hi-energy electronic music with a rock edge but was eventually too in Swedish and too given to mellow meandering to work.
Esmerine, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More– Opened with some fine moody instrumental piano music and, eh…
Field Medic, Grow Your Hair Long If You’re Wanting to See Something– Skillful playing in a n acoustic jangle pop vein and interesting introspective lyrics, but too same track-to-track vocally and musically.
Frankie Cosmos, Inner World Peace– Incidentally the daughter of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline, Frankie Cosmos is Greta Simone Kline. She’s putting out some great dreamy, semi-twee pop here, and it’s very good, but eventually the vocal and musical and energy level balance tract to track is too often the same.
Gilla Band, Most Normal– This may have been a little too grating and experimental for me as noise pop goes.
Hagop Tchaparian, Bolts – This electronic music was a little too hushed and abstract-tending for me, but he is now my favorite British-Armenian artist.
Hermanos Gutiérrez, El Bueno y el Malo– This Swiss Ecuadorian musician is making some soulful and complex music, but the all-instrumental album and slower tempo made it hard for me to get my hooks in.
iLe, Nacarile– I do like a theremin and other psychedelic affects thrown in with my Spanish language ballads, but the foreign language and relative sameness in tone track to track kept it from settling in with me.
Indigo Sparkle, Hysteria– It’s a beautiful folk-flavored album and her voice is sublime, but it is very same track to track.
Joanne Shaw Taylor, Nobody’s Fool– There’s some good country/folk playing here, but the production feels a little too slick, and the track sameness sets in by and by.
Johanna Warren, Lessons for Mutants– A bit of a spooky ethereal singer, and not bad, but very in a similar flat vein.
Julia Reidy, World in World– The all-instrumental format made it hard for me to get ahold off, but there’s some good spooky discordant guitar here.
Junior Boys, Waiting Game- Well that was pretty ambient and abstract
Keiji Haino/Sumac, Into This Juvenile Apocalypse our Golden Blood to Pour Let Us Never– The philosophical and abstract title of the album and the tracks is borne out in the (mostly instrumental) music, although in a very noisy, metallic, and discordant kind of way.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava– A strangely poppy and sunny sound from these eclectic psyche masters, but eventually it got too jazz-jammy.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Changes– Even more jazz-jammy than the other album by them I listened to this month.
Lamb of God, Omens– I do appreciate some Lamb of God, but was this lambier or godier enough to stand out among their work and the best albums of the year?
Lucrecia Dalt, !Ay!– Per description I read: “Lucrecia Dalt’s ¡Ay! was inspired by the bolero, salsa, and merengue music she grew up hearing in Colombia as a child. The album follows a science fiction story line about an alien visitor named Preta who visits Earth and attempts to make sense of the human condition.” This certainly intrigued, but between an abstract bent and being all in Spanish, I had trouble connecting with it.
M.I.A., Mata– Arular and Kala are two of my favorite albums not just of the 00s, but of the whole damn last 25 years, which in this case is a double-edged sword. It had me going in rooting for this album, but it also has me going in with some steep reference points. I’m left feeling that, while there are many fine moments throughout, and it’s never bad, what’s here isn’t as coherent, arresting, or challenging as her best.
Macula Dog, Orange 2– A lurching off-kilter and often quite funny electronic album. Eventually a little too off-kilter to be consistently listenable for me, but interesting.
Martha, Please Don’t Take Me Back- Nice poppy punk, it would fit in well with nice poppy funk from most anytime the last twenty years or so.
Mavi, Laughing So Hard It Hurts– Definitely some literate self-exposure on this hip hop album, but the flow is a little too low key, as is the mix.
Meat Wave, Malign Hex– Shouty, punk-flavored, with an air of post-punk angularity. It’s fun enough but doesn’t really stand out from other similar examples of this sound.
Mightmare, Cruel Liars– Sarah Shook solo, her other album is one of my favorites of the year, and while this is extremely high quality, it doesn’t have quite the same spark of authenticity and personal power about it.
Molly Joyce, Perspective– Philosophical musings and interview sound snippets on disability, along with experimental music. It’s certainly interesting, definitely artistic, undoubtedly worthy, but I’m not sure it adds up to a repeatedly listenable album.
Natalia Lafourcade, De Todas Las Flores– A touching collection of ballads from this Mexican pop artist, on the theme of heartbreak. The sameness of tone and the language barrier kept me from “getting” it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there to get.
Nick Hakim, Cometa– This Brooklyn Musician is doing some decent work here, thick with mood, lo-fi musical surprises, and lyrics full of feeling. But it’s all a little too hazy and undifferentiated track to track to really grab hold of.
Open Mike Eagle, Component System with the Auto Reverse– Some good left-field rap with a lot of humor, but it never quite feels dynamic and captivating enough on a song-to-song basis.
Palm, Nicks and Grazes– There is an air of clashing and discordant to this electronic music, and traces of melody, which make it interesting. But it ends up being a little too clashy feeling for sustained listen.
Peel Dream Magazine, Pad– It’s a nice mellow grove with pleasant synth pop flourishes, but, eh…
Peter Buck/Luke Haines, All the Kids Are Super Bummed Out– Post-punk legend Haines had one of my semi-finalists last year, and Peter Buck, is of course Peter Buck of REM. So, it was some promising material. And, on about every other track, where what each of them is doing really gels, it’s sublime. The rest of the time, though, it’s a little muddy-sounding and unfocused.
Plains, I Walked With You a Ways– Together, Jess Williamson and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield are Plains. Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud was one of my favorites of 2020, and I do like the country inflected genre. It’s well played, well sung, meaningfully lyrical but a little too same all the way through.
PVA, Blush– If you like your dance music metallic and vaguely terrifying, this is rather good. I do like those things, but it blends on a track-by-track basis after a while.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Return of the Dream Canteen– This is a great band. This is a great band stretching out and getting trippy. As such, there are many interesting moments here. But at 75 minutes, and without a coherent theme or structure, I’m not sure it adds up to a great album.
Rich Aucoin, Synthetic: Season One– I will grant this sounds very synthetic. It’s not bad as electronic music goes, sometimes more on the abstract/experiment than the dance side.
Robyn Hitchcock, Shufflemania– As a child of the alt 80s, I was required by law to like Robyn Hitchcock. It was a good law, and indeed many of his 60s pop influences with a dark twist charms are on display here. At moments it’s quite engaging, but it does tend toward too many songs in amore lugubrious vein in a row.
Scout Gillett, No Roof No Floor– A surging wall of feedback sound, dark minor chords, yearning vocals, a hint of country. It was compelling until it got a little too hushed (and jazzy) halfway through.
Shabason & Krgovich, At Scaramouche– A shimmery (and weirdly Christmassy) sound that did have interesting musical nuances but didn’t engage me.
Show Me the Body, Trouble the Water– I do appreciate the darkness and denseness of the sound here, like post-punk heard through a musical bazaar. It’s a little on the grating sound though, especially the vocals, which eventually cuts into listenability.
Simple Minds, Direction of the Heart– Good on Simple Minds for still making albums (this is their 19th), and there is a world-weariness about it that I appreciate, but it’s too deep into an 80s pop veteran afterburn sound.
Single Mothers, Everything You Need– Some nice punk yuds, better than most and with a genuine anguish on the vocal and lyrical front that’s a little unusual.
Skullcrusher, Quiet the Room– This sounds much less skull-crushing than I would have expected given, you know, the name. It is a darkly nuanced well-produced swirl, but a little ethereal for my tastes.
Sorry, Anywhere But Here– There’s a good sound here that reminds me of many strands of 80s and 90s alt, but while tracks jumped out at me, there was something uneven that kept it from being continuously more than the sum of its parts.
Sylvie, Sylvie– A very pleasant acoustic slightly country-flavored ramble, but at this point in the year, you need to be on fire to stand out against the best.
Taylor Swift, Midnights– The lady doesn’t make a bad album, and the best moments here are up to her best moments anywhere. It does have an unfortunate tendency to have some more “typical” current autotuned sounding tracks that don’t stand out, and some sequencing and pacing issues with too many slow moments too close together. I think there’s a shorter and rearranged version of this that would have been a “yes”, but as is, it’s a nice but not vital or standout addition to Taylormania.
The 1975, Being Funny in a Foreign Language– This is about as good as radio hit indie rock gets, and in fact consistently has some interesting production twists. As such, it’s not bad, but am I going to remember most of these tracks at this time next year?
The Claudettes, The Claudettes Go Out!– Sophisticated, smoky, literate, jazzy songs. While I can’t, I acknowledge that someone can.
The Cult, Under the Midnight Sun– I’ve been liking The Cult since their music first crossed my radar as an 80s alt youth when their second album started getting US College radio station airplay, and their 1987 third album, Electric, remains one of my favorites of that entire era. So, I was here to listen carefully, and indeed, I listened to the whole album, even after I knew I was probably a “no”. It’s good music, reflective of many periods of their career, and won’t disappoint fans, but as a whole doesn’t stand out from their best.
The Lightning Seeds, See You in the Stars– The Lightning Seeds were masters of a kind of sunny twee pop from the late 80’s forward, and they’re still doing it well here. There’s nothing wrong with it, in fact it’s very pleasant, but it sounds of its era.
The Orielles, Tableau– Ethereal, electronic, interesting, not un-fun, but doesn’t ultimately engage.
The Soft Pink Truth, Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This?– There’s some not bad electronic music here, but not sure if it adds up to a consistently engaging album.
Therion, Leviathan II– Their brand of symphonic metal meets choral vocal music is interesting, but I don’t know that I’d want to play it again and again.
Tove Lo, Dirt Femme– She’s Swedish, which I always like, and it’s pretty good as electronic dance music goes, but not year’s best good.
Town Mountain, Lines in the Levee– It’s some good country, better than most. Better than best of year though?
TSHA, Capricorn Sun– This London producer and DJ knows her way around a soundscape, and as result there is good R&B/dance music here. It sounds a little too thinly produced at the expense of power and vitality at times, and the various approaches (while interesting) don’t quite gel. Still, I’d keep an eye out on more from her.
Various Artists, Here It Is: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen– Obviously, exquisite source material, and some very good covers here. Cohen fans wouldn’t go amiss by having this in their collection, even if it may not work at “year’s best” level as an album proper.
Wand, Spiders in the Rain– Double live album of 8 tracks recorded by psychedelic band while touring in 2019. This is actually a lot more accessible-sounding than that description might make you think! But it’s not quite over an hour’s worth of accessible.
Westside Gunn, 10– The haunting philosophical intro gives way to a 9albeit well-delivered) series of street-life focused songs that don’t back up that profundity at all. Maybe it’s my issue, but the disconnect there threw me.
YoungBoy Never Broke Again, 3800 Degrees– Apparently the artist’s fourth album of the year, and it moves pretty well, but the auto-tune is auto-tuned…
Zella Day, Sunday in Heaven– Not bad as torchy dance albums go, but at this point in the year, I need out of the ballparks for that category.
And there we are, finis on October! On to November and December!
Before we dive deeper into 2022, let’s do a quick overview of the three categories:
Yes– These are albums that could be in the running for the year’s best. There are no guarantees in this, through September there were 134 yesses, So we’re already looking at a 6:1 kill ratio before we even get to…
Maybe– These are the albums that definitely have something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. But sometimes “maybes” linger and become “yeses”, so they’re worth another listen. There’s 120 of these through September.
No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crap. You do sometimes end up there because you’re crap. But other times you can be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and ambitious, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to “yes” isn’t easy!
And now, with our categories established, let’s charge forward with the review of 239 (!!!) new releases from August and September!
4s4ki, Killer in Neverland– Japanese rapper and singer 4s4ki’s music is a colorful mashup of pop-punk, electro-pop soundscapes, and melodic rap. Which is a crazy musical kaleidoscope, sometimes involving melody so sweet it hurts, sometimes hyperpop so over the edge the line between it being a joke and it being undeniable is irrelevant. And there’s an aura of weirdness and glee throughout. Almost entirely in Japanese, but the sonic vistas it charts…
Bill Orcutt, Music for Four Guitars– Like with Mat Ball in July, it turns out that if you are going to sell me on an all-instrumental album, it needs to be an electric experimental distorted guitar album! In this case, it’s less experimental and more conventional than Ball’s album, but also heavier, and I love the sound it makes!
Black Thought/Danger Mouse, Cheat Codes– This collaboration between remixer supreme Danger Mouse and the Roots co-founder Black Thought is excellent. Black Thought brings his dense poetic lyrics and authoritative rhythmic vocal flow, Danger Mouse brings a mix heavy with sounds of steady grooving 70s Soul, and the synergy between the two takes it to a whole new level.
Butcher Brown, Butcher Brown Presents Triple Trey– A Richmond Virginia jazz quintet founded in 2009, and known for mixing things up with funk, hip-hop, R&B, and soul. The review I read afterward said it was quarantine-inspired arrangements that sought to deconstruct the big band era. I don’t know that I picked up on that at all, but I did pick up on the jazz and hip-hop intersection, reminding me of 90s practitioners of the same (aka Digable Planets, Us3, etc), with a consciousness that reminded me more than a little of KRS-One and an intelligent multi-layered mix and sampling that reminded me of Madvillain. These are all along the line of comparison points, and it never felt derivative. More like richly sourced, and sonically excellent.
Demi Lovato, Holy Fvck– Regarding the title- Yes! Sonically, one might say it’s navigating a pretty familiar stretch of road- 2000s pop-punk. But as much as it tilts toward the “pop” side, it’s also as often sincerely shredding on the hard and heavy side. And lyrically is where the real bite comes in, as she follows up on last year’s Art of Starting Over. She’s not as raw here in general as that album, but no less powerful and often more nuanced. She continues to stake out a real artistic space for herself, and I’m intrigued to see what’s next.
Disco Doom, Mt. Surreal– What would surreal (if not downright experimental) disco music sound like? Maybe a bit like this! There’s actually plenty of melody and even some beat here, but it’s turned inside out by experimental noise and distortion. It kept me interested track after track, and was simultaneously fun and challenging, which isn’t an easy balance to strike. Well done little Swiss band!
Ezra Furman, All of Us Flames– Part of a trilogy from this Chicago artist, this album has atmospheric, theatrical, lyrically dense poetic story-telling, with equal parts heartland rock, punk, and Tom Waits-style storytelling. That’s on the musical and vocal side. Lyrically, it’s both a call to arms and series of poignant powerful vignettes on the struggle of being Queer in America. A masterwork, all the way around.
Freedy Johnston, Back on the Road to You– This album is full of 60s pop sounds, the sound of later interpreters of such (ELO, Tom Petty), and touches of country. He’s been a singer-songwriter’s Singer-songwriter since the 90s, and is bringing some just damn fine sweetly chiming pop music here.
Gogol Bordello, Solidaritine– I must confess, though I have run across the name for years in circles that indicated it might be something I would like, I had no actual idea what Gogol Bordello’s deal was. Their deal is amazing! If you feel like you might need some Romani folk, hardcore, and ska all mixed together in a delirious swirl and delivered with over-the-top energy and 100% commitment, well, I welcome you to join me as a newfound aficionado of Gogol Bordello.
Horace Andy, Midnight Scorchers– Veteran reggae artist Horace Andy’s album from earlier this year, Midnight Rocker, was an incredible showcase of his timeless talent, still sounding strong 50 years into his career. This album follows in the tradition of providing a dub counterpart for important reggae records, reworking some of the songs from the album with new mixes and newly recorded additions. In theory, this should be less coherent than the original? In practice, I like it even better! Dub is the perfect accompaniment to the eerie echoing power of this reggae master.
Jay Bellerose/T-Bone Burnett/Keefus Ciancia, The Invisible Light: Spells– The chanting incantatory opening about selling realities on demand does indeed cast a spell, and then other tracks go on in a similar vein. This is more experimental that I would have expected from Burnett, but some of that comes through the other collaborators. And the poetic exploration and variety of voices is something I’m here for!
Judy and the Jerks, Music to Go Nuts– I mean, is it an album? It’s only 16 minutes long! But it is ten songs. Take that, Ramones! Maybe it’s because the songs are delivered with such verve and commitment, maybe it’s the female lead, which I always enjoy, but I haven’t been this happy with something in the punk genre since some of the early 2000s Riot Grrl afterburn. Not bad, Hattiesburg, Mississippi band! (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Julia Jacklin, PRE PLEASURE– Is this an acoustic singer-songwriter? A 90’s influenced alt-pop songstress? A romantic balladeer? Maybe yes to all of those, and whatever she is, this Australian artist is turning out song after solid song and succeeding at all types and tempos.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Let’s Turn It Into Sound– Los Angeles-based artist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s album is good and trippy. It follows through on the album title’s suggestion, and sounds alternately like someone messing around on a recorder, 80s video game sound effects and synth film soundtracks, multi-choral choral music, and an early 80s grade school documentary imagining of what the music of the future would sound like. The future is here!
Kal Marks, My Name is Hell– Is it noise pop? Grunge? A driving and angular post-punk flavored by metal and hardcore? At times it sounds like all of these, and what this all adds up to is good old fashioned heavy noise! With just the right kind of melody shining through. This Boston trio has dissolved and then been reformed with new members by the original lead singer, and I’m glad they’re here for this!
Kamikaze Palm Tree, Mint Chip– LA-based, from San Francisco, with 14 songs in 31 minutes. It’s gloriously off kilter, it’s sing-song, it’s melodious and discordant, I can’t tell whether it’s hilarious or vaguely threatening. I love it!
Kiwi Jr., Chopper– This, I am told, is the fourth album by this Toronto trio. I’d given their third album, Cooler Returns, a “maybe” in my 2021 ratings, noting that if you liked your power-pop a la Modern Lovers and the Replacements, you would enjoy it, but wondering if it was too familiar. I want to go back and re-listen to that album now, because this hit those same notes for me, but the familiarity was a selling point. As in- every song sounds like an old favorite that you’d forgotten and makes your heart ache just a little with the recognition. I’m in!
Kolb, Tyrannical Vibes– So rocky! So melodic poppy! So intellectual and obscure lyrics to go with the surface sheen! So alternating male and female vocalists! This project of a New York singer-songwriter delivers an album that works from beginning to end.
KT Tunstall, Nut– KT Tunstall occupies an almost perfect space between guitar rock and a dance pop. Everything here is nearly too smooth, but raw enough to redeem that, and above all, hooky. Plus, she’s Scottish. That’s always a good way to get my attention!
Mo Troper, MTV– This is full of distorted harmonies and great fuzzy bursts of noise. Ans amidst the joyous musical discord and mixed in with a good deal of irreverence, there are genuine feelings as well from this Portland-based power pop impresario. Their music reminds me of the Deerhoof school of blowing up and reassembling pop songs. I like that school!
Muse, Will of the People– I don’t understand what’s going on here, but I love it! At times, this sounds like: Prog rock on overdrive. An amazing Queen tribute. Over the top symphonic metal. Theatrical 80s synth-pop. Something a la Marilyn Manson. And it’s all held together by a topical dive into our troubled era that would do Rage Against the Machine proud. They’ve been around for coming up on three decades, but somehow, I don’t think I ever knew what Muse was about. Now that I do, I like it!
Oneida, Success– I saw them described as “Genre-bending Brooklyn indie rockers steeped in synth pop, hard rock, garage punk, stoner rock, and psychedelia” and darned if that isn’t a pretty good description of what’s going on here. It’s often hard and heavy, but skillfully played, and the mix of elements keeps it dynamic. A little weaker on the vocal side, but the seething distorted musical excellence more than makes up for that.
Panda Bear/Sonic Boom, Reset– Two leading figures of the more experimental side of rock have come together to do something that feels surprising- make, in a sense, traditional music. You’ll find the sonic references for 2000s lad rock, 80s synth, and classic 60s pop all over the place. But the shifts between them are dynamic and unexpected, and the whole thing is shot through with a sunny energy of fun, fun, fun!
Sammy Hagar & the Circle, Crazy Times– I have a fondness for Sammy Hagar going back to the 80s, so maybe I walked in to this compromised. But no, really, there are some great things going on here! There is good time rock and roll. There are interesting covers choices. There is heavy noise that makes me miss 80s hard rock radio. There are nuanced meditations on aging and what it all means. And is if all that isn’t enough, Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and Jason Bonham on drums!
Sampa The Great, As Above, So Below– This Zambian poet and songwriter provides a mix of African musical styles, grounded in hip-hop, and pulling in a variety of forms. Philosophical, spiritual, clever, interesting. More of this please!
Santigold, Spirituals– Santigold is a boundary breaking Philadelphia singer, songwriter, and producer with an extensive background in the music industry, who’s material encompasses dub, hip-hop, punk/new wave, and electro. Fittingly, her album is full of energy, a variety of musical influences, and wit, with a sure feel for melody and hooks, while also making challenging choices.
Sick Thoughts, Heaven Is No Fun– The songs here are sometimes in a classically UK punk vein (I Hate You) sometimes like 70s metal (Mother, I Love Satan), or glammier 70s hard rock (Submachine Love) and delivered with 100% conviction. It is, in those ways, a very dated sound. But this doesn’t sound like mere aping, more like an original work of a bygone era that’s somehow fallen out of a time warp. Keeping in mind this New Orleans-based musician is only 25 it’s kind of an amazing achievement!
The Beths, Expert in a Dying Field– Their live album from last year was on my semi-finalists list. What I heard there that so charmed me is on abundant display here- their sure hand at guitar rock that can crunch and get fuzzy, but never losses a feeling for hooks and melody, and the presence and sweet clear vocals of lead singer/guitarist Elizabeth Stokes. There’s nothing about this New Zealand band to not like. So says I!
The Mountain Goats, Bleed Out– Hooks, chord changes, clever word play, and swelling musical moments. At times it’s a little jam bandy, others more power pop, and sometimes it reminds me of Neil Young and Even Death Cab for Cutie. The whole thing is held together by a semi-narrative involving crime drama themes. Intriguing and a consistently good listen!
Titus Andronicus, The Will to Live– In the wake of the passing of his longtime friend and bandmate, Titus Andronicus lead singer Patrick Stickles set out to create what he called an “Ultimate Rock Album”. Darned if he didn’t succeed! It’s got crunching hard guitar, 70s cock rock swagger, power chords that would do the Who proud (and/or be legally actionable by them), flirts variously with stadium rock, straight-up metal and punk, and is hooky as all get-out.
Valerie June, Under Cover– A covers album from one of my top picks for 2021 for her album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. She casts her net wide- among others, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, John Lennon, Mazzy Starr, and Nick Cave all make appearances. So, excellent as far as sourcing goes, but on top of that she delivers great covers, diving deep into the strengths of her voice, her diverse musical background, and a sense of both reverence and exuberant playfulness. The net effect of all this is heartachingly beautiful.
Boris, Heavy Rocks – This Japanese alternative metal/noise rock band has been around since the 90s, and hearing that fact and their genre gives you a clue to what’s going on here. The most impressive thing about it, though, is how wide ranging it is. You’ll hear a 90s grunge/alt metal sound, but also prog rock moments, psych rock meltdowns, and a good deal of metal from multiple eras and genres. The language barrier is an issue, but then again, you don’t really need language to understand the untethered celebration of rock going on here.
Brasileiro Garantido, Churros Recheado– Brasileiro Garantido aka Gabriel Guerra, is the leader behind Rio de Janeiro’s 40% Foda/Maneiríssimo label. I was as surprised as anyone that this electronic album works for me, or nearly so. There is just something clever and fun about its loops and samples, reminding me in a way of 90s techno, and I kept going for one more track. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Buzzcocks, Sonics in the Soul– Pete Shelley having passed in 2018, you might reasonably stake out the position that there can’t be a new Buzzcocks album. And, it being nearly 45 years since their debut, you might reasonably question if there should be. However, the rest of the original band is here, and beyond Pete’s leadership and lyricism, they were always a powerful and very musically influential band. If you don’t take this as something that needs to match the original lineup, and if you allow that the sound is a throwback in a way, you’re left with a great band making a great contemporary version of their music. I must consider it!
Chris Forsyth, Evolution Here We Come– What’s this? Am I saying “yes”maybe” to another (mostly) instrumental guitar album? I am! This one is somewhere in-between experimental, fusion, and a good old fashioned early 80s rock guitar jam, but it was charming, and has an oddly out of time feeling.
Courting, Guitar Music– Sometimes it was electronic with an electric edge, sometimes it was like the “shouted vocal” semi-rap style so common in the UK now, sometimes it sounded like a sweetly melodic early 00s indie band. All of this came at the expense of coherence and the album totally adding up, but it was more than interesting enough in its form and tongue-in-cheek pop-culture obsessed lyrics that I’d listen again. And recommend keeping one’s eyes on this Liverpool band!
Crack Cloud, Tough Baby– This was, uh- What was this?!?!? An avant garde 80s-style synth album? A bratty hardcore outing? An experimental album? A joke? A deadly serious joke? I’m not entirely sure, but the mix of samples, storyline, and over the top but also utterly sincere music this album from a, and I quote, “Vancouver-based punk collective who utilize the combined talents of various artists, filmmakers, musicians, and designers” is too fascinating to not consider further.
Death Cub for Cutie, Asphalt Meadows– This is a tough one, because any Death Cab album taken on its own would be in a “should consider” for any given year. But not taken by itself, what I’m actually doing with a new album from them is comparing it to all previous Death Cab (and Postal Service) albums. And that’s a tougher hurdle to clear. So in this case, maybe? I think it’s worth a re-listen.
Dr. John, Things Happen That Way– This is his last album, recorded during his final months, which certainly makes it more poignant. But even without that it’s tender, relaxed, makes great use of guest stars, and chooses excellent covers from many directions. Inherently, given the covers and the traditional musical styles, not the freshest thing ever. But it’s a beautiful sound. Go in peace Dr. John!
Fred Moten/Brandon López/Gerald Cleaver, Moten/López/Cleaver– Critic and theorist Fred Moten joins bassist Brandon López and drummer Gerald Cleaver for an album that joins together philosophical discourse, poetry, jazz improv, and experimental electronic. Yes, it is as heady and sometime abstract as that might imply. But it is also arresting and heavy, both musically and philosophically.
Freddie Gibbs, $oul $old $eparately– This album reads partially as a hip hop artist diving into the soul samples so many songs draw from. I wish there was more of that, because it’s brilliantly done, but when it fades, it’s “merely” the 40-year-old artist delivering solid life stories and strong mixes that remind a little of Jay Z.
Goon, Hour of Green Evening– In some ways, this Los Angeles band’s sweetly chiming neo-psychedelia sounds too simple and straightforward to be an annual “best”. But it’s also nearly perfectly done. Paisley Underground forever! (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Jesca Hoop, Order of Romance– Sharply cornered lyrically, with a spare and abstract music that draws on jazz, band, and swing sounds, and plain-spoken yet melodious vocals. This is not unfamiliar from a Fiona Apple kind of direction, or Sufjan Stevens for that matter, but with more than a little Laurie Anderson in the mix. It’s not always an un-challenging listen, but it is always an interesting one.
JID, The Forever Story– There was really something to this! On the plus side, the vocal phrasing was unusual, the musical mix was nervy and off kilter, and the lyrics came from a unique POV, often humorous and sometimes unsettling, with a wide-ranging name check of hip-hop’s past and present. There was even an album framing structure of sorts. While it had way more autotune than I prefer, I was rooting for it!
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, Old :Time Folks– This “old time” here seems to be more 70s, some Bat Out of Hell, some Cheap Trick, some 38 Special, maybe some Stillwater? Definitely Stillwater, but the older stuff, from before the “No Planes” Tour. There’s plenty of “new time” too though, sounding like the more electric side of 80s/90s alt country, or, more recently, Drive-By Truckers in their sure feel for country, rock, and contemporary but timeless lyrics. It’s not the most original formulation of all of that I’ve ever heard, but it always feels authentic.
Madison Cunningham, Revealer– Smooth, but the music is lively (folk, rock a la 90s, world jazz), the lyricism is strong, the vocals are exquisite, and it’s packed with surprising moments. But also frequently on the edge of being of too slick.
Marlon Williams, My Boy– It’s no mystery what the musical POV of this New Zealand musician here is- there are specific lyrical nods to Bryan Ferry and Robyn Hitchcock, for instance. And indeed, throughout it sounds like certain strains of 70s AM radio pop, the Roxier side of glam, 80s neo-psych alt, and synth. And is a well-delivered, hooky, and compelling delivery of these influences as well. Every few songs it went a little flat and I fell out of the spell, which kept me from “yes”, despite how masterful it usually was.
Panic! At the Disco, Viva Las Vengeance– It’s so perfectly obvious what this album is doing that it almost feels manipulative- it’s an over-the-top ode to the lovable excess of rock. But, if you manipulate me by evoking Meatloaf, Queen, Springsteen, and 80s rock ballads, and liven it with a punk attitude, I’m probably going along for the ride. And, as is their forte, Panic! At the Disco pack it with feeling that could be called emo, but is so unreservedly committed to it that it carries you along. I kept wondering if it was all too much, but I also kept being charmed back in by the realization that is the whole point.
Rhett Miller, The Misfit– Miller is the former lead singer of the alt country Old 97’s, who in his solo work has tended in a more pop direction. That’s definitely on display here, but think 60s and 70s-indebted pop rather than 00s dance pop. I was on the edge between loving the evocative music and his nuanced lyrics and finding it a little same going track to track. Each time I was about to abandon it because of that sameness though, a musical surprise or a particularly affecting lyric turn got me back on board.
Rina Sawayama, Hold the Girl– Her 2020 album Sawayama made my top 20 list that year, so I was interested to listen to this. I would say overall this current album is less coherent than that album, but hot damn is she good! In a world in which there will always be dance pop, may it be this powerful, full of surprises, and come with just the right touch of complexity and challenge to go with the fun.
Roc Marciano & The Alchemist, The Elephant Man’s Bones– The Alchemist has been behind so many of the hip-hop albums I’ve liked in the last two years that I had this one flagged for careful listening. Many of the traits I’ve come to associate with his work are here- the eddied mix, looped sounds, swirling cadence of vocal flow. It sounds great, and there’s an air of dark import to the lyrics. I wasn’t totally sure it came together, but it also kept me tuned in the whole time.
Steve Earle & the Dukes, Jerry Jeff– Jerry Jeff is the third and final of Steve Earle’s tributes to what he refers to as his “first-hand teachers, the heroes I was lucky enough to sit across the room from so I could listen and learn up close…” The Jerry Jeff in question is Jerry Jeff Walker, best known for writing “Mr. Bojangles.” Between the excellence of Earle, who has been plying his trade in country, rock, blues, and bluegrass since the 80s, and the excellence of the source material, this is a definite possibility.
Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen– Brittney Denise Parks, better known by her stage name Sudan Archives, is a violinist, singer, songwriter, and producer who combines R&B, hip-hop, folk, and experimental electronic music. Add to this musical mix a feminist and socially conscious point of view, and lyrical wit to spare. It’s really pretty amazing, but this comes with a bit of a “everything and the kitchen sink” feeling which does work against album coherence a little. But still…
The House of Love, A State of Grace– This has got some scuzzy garage rock sound to it, some heavy sheen of 60s pop in a Roger McGuinn vein, maybe a twist of country, and a lyrical voice that sometimes reminds me of heartland American rockers and Dylan. The House of Love is apparently a UK band that has been plying this kind of sound since the late 80s. It’s not the most original combination of sounds ever, and the balance is a little off in the album in terms of the sound of later tracks versus earlier ones, but I’d say it’s still working for them!
Tony Molina, In The Fade– This is like a punk album in the sense that there are 14 songs crowded into around 20 minutes. But stylistically, instead of punk, the songs alternate between an ornate neo-psychedelia and a heavy guitar-fuzzed pop. This works though, their brevity and variety of approaches being not unlike a punk attack, except with sweet pop. Bay Area musician Molina is a master of this form, but you’ll hear echoes- Weezer often came to mind for me. So, a touch derivative, but an excellent derivation.
Tyler Childers, Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?– This triple album by Kentucky native Tyler Childers gets to that length by an unusual method. It contains three different versions of the same eight song-cycle. In the process, we go from a fairly traditional bluegrass/country presentation to something in an almost experimental electronic space. This is certainly the music geek in me speaking, but each set is interesting in its own right, and together the juxtaposition is fascinating, and creates an arc that holds the whole thing together.
Various Artists, Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson– Anderson was considered by many to be the godfather of the “New Traditionalist” country movement through his late 70s-early 80s releases. These covers of his songs feature some old favorites like John Prine, mid-old favorites like Gillian Welch, and new friends I’ve met doing album reviews in the last two years like Eric Church, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Sturgill Simpson. In a sense this is a “greatest hits”, in a sense a covers album, and in those senses, derived, but such a solid listen.
Zannie, How Do I Get That Star– Brooklyn songwriter whose album was inspired by an obscure poet, the Voyager probe’s gold record, and a concept about an alien trying to find their way home. If that sounds a bit heady to you, the good news is that the gauzy indie rock with country and electronic touches that results isn’t heavily burdened by this concept. If the music is a little gauzy, there are consistently vocal, lyrical, and musical surprises that bring it into focus. While i kept teetering, that itself is the very definition of a “maybe”.
2nd Grade, Easy Listening– As sun-soaked happy pop punk albums go, this is one, and it’s fun. It’s not more, though.
5 Seconds of Summer, 5SOS5– this Australian pop-rock band sounds very radio friendly and I want to cast them into a lake of fire.
Afrorack, The Afrorack– synth hardware is built to the specifications of a format known as Eurorack. Afrorack is the project of Brian Bamanya, the Kampala, Uganda-based inventor of Africa’s first DIY modular synthesizer—a homegrown alternative to pricey imports and a creative statement. Eventually a little abstract to work as an album in total, I did appreciate the sonic explorations though. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
After Dinner, Paradise of Replica– This avant garde Japanese band is very avant garde. There are some interesting things going on here, but between the abstract nature and the language barrier, it wouldn’t be a repeated listener for me.
Air Waves, The Dance– project of Brooklyn singer/songwriter Nicole Schneit, smart and well-done indie pop, but too much on the low-key same track to track wavelength for me
Alex G, God Save the Animals– collaborated with a half-dozen engineers at five different studios across the Northeast, giving them each the nebulous instruction to offer their “best” recording quality. The result is a fascinating kaleidoscope of sound, and the songs are quite arresting. Some of them tend toward the more abstract, though, and the approach lends itself to lack of coherence.
Altered Images, Mascara Streakz– started 1979 Scottish New Wave, and I have to say, it’s really good, but is such a New Wave/disco era that it’s kind of stuck in that.
Amateur Hour, Krökta Tankar och Brända Vanor– Starts off with a fuzzy sheen of sound surging melody and hint of metallic grating, which I liked. Added in some interesting sound effects, and distorted semi-vocals, which were interesting. Lasts for over an hour, which is too much for something that is so similar track to track.
Anne Malin, Summer Angel– Bandcamp says “Anne Malin confidently blurs the boundaries between freak folk, experimental country, and indie rock”. That’s actually a pretty good description, and I was on the fence for quite a while, but eventually it was too much in a low key, ethereal vein to sustain a whole album length. She did more than occasionally remind me of the Throwing Muses, Cocteau Twins, and Nick Cave on the way, though, so eyes out! (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Ari Lennox, Age/Sex/Location– A fine R&B album, but not more than fine.
Art Moore, Art Moore– If you’re an Oakland Trio who started out wanting to make music to go with other forms of art, odds are I will like you. And I did like their band of dreamy shimmery pop with just the right amount of rock edge. Toward the end it got to be a little too much all in the same key, though.
Badge Époque Ensemble, Clouds of Joy– The sound of easy listening jazz, it infiltrates my soul…
Bent Arcana, Live Zebulon– The 2020 release Bent Arcana launched a series of improvisational records made by Osees’ John Dwyer and a revolving cast of friends, bandmates, and guests. Live Zebulon, issued in 2022, documents a concert in Los Angeles intended as a warmup for a gig in Holland, yet was powerful enough to stand out on its own. It’s a little jazz fusion, a little improv jamming psych rock guitar. All instrumental and didn’t work for me as a coherent whole at album length.
Beth Orton, Weather Alive– I have liked Beth Orton and her folktronic swirl since her debut, and this is in great form, in fact the sound has aged well to match the maturity of theme here. But the ethereal swirl keeps it from fully gelling for me.
Binker Golding, Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy– At first it started off very slidey blues guitar and I liked it. Then way too much jazz stuff started happening, and I was out. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Bitchin Bajas, Bajascillators– Bitchin’ Bajas is a band operated as a side-project by Cooper Crain, who is also guitarist/organist of the band Cave. I love the name, but it gets to be somewhere between nearly ambient electronic and jazz. I can’t.
Bjork, Fossora– I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “bad” Bjork album. I will say this one tends a little more to the abstract and experimental (even for her!) than the consistently listenable. But it’s never not interesting!
Black Pink, Born Pink– This band of k-poppers almost had me with their punchy and dynamic first song. It got a little more conventional after that. Not bad, but not best.
Blaqk Audio, Trop d’amour– An electronic duo made up of two members of AFI, so I’m going in cautious. It ends up sounding very like an 80s synth-group, with Depeche Mode in particular often coming to mind. Not the worst thing in the world, but not new or rising above its form.
Brainwaltzera, ITSAME– Love the group name, and the highly intelligent abstract electronic music they produce is interesting. Not “works as an over an hour-long album” interesting, but interesting. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Bret McKenzie, Songs Without Jokes– He takes various strains of pop- swoony and croony, Beatles influenced as heard through the 70s, the power pop side of new wave, lush 80s synth, etc. And then melds it with a sometimes romantic, sometimes cynical point of view (a la, perhaps, Randy Newman). It was well on its way to being a yes, but three muted slower songs in a row mid-album sapped its strength.
Buddy Guy, The Blues Don’t Lie– 86-year-old Buddy Guy is a blues master, perhaps one of the few we have left deserving of that title. As such, fans of his and fans of the genre won’t be ill-deserved by this album. But it also feels like what it is, a master taking a comfortable lap.
Built to Spill, When the Wind Forgets Your Name– I do really like Built to Spill’s earlier work, and this has some of those charms, but also a little too far on the low-key indie side without as much of the hook chord-changing rock to keep things moving.
Calvin Harris, Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 2– It’s a mix of super smooth international club and hip hop and it’s super smooth and sophisticated sounding and you would enjoy having it play in the background.
Cass McCombs, Heartmind– Some classic sounding pop, melodic traces of 60s and 70s, with a good solid guitar base, and it opens with a love song to music. What’s not to like?
Clark, Body Double– A fine electronic album, it’s got a good BPM for keeping housework peppy.
dalek, Precipice– It is suitable atmospheric for a band named “dalek”, but eventually a little too all one low-key tone. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Daniel Romano, La Luna– When a 30-something minute album is composed of two tracks, you can be reasonably assured it’s going to be jammy, trippy, or ambient. This was somewhere between a countrified version of jammy, and a psychedelic version of trippy, which isn’t such a bad way for it to have turned out, but eventually didn’t do it for me.
Danny Elfman, Bigger.Messier.– Remix/additional artists on last year’s Big Mess. Some of the mixes are incredibly fun and interesting, but as an ultimately derivative project, and one clocking in at an hour 43, it would be hard for it to land.
death’s dynamic shroud, Darklife– The first track was too abstract an electronic, the second was way too autotuned, and so it wasn’t until the third that got to something I didn’t mind. at is a great band name, though, I’ll hand them that.
DeepChord, Functional Designs– It was so ambient I fell asleep and died, and so am unable to complete my review.
Defcee/Boathouse, For All Debts Private and Public– Defcee’s album (with Messiah Musik) Trapdoor was one of my top picks for 2021, so I came in interested. And this has a lot of the charms of that album- solid beats, spare atmospheric production and flow, fiercely intelligent lyrics. But the energy level didn’t feel like it quite kicked in in a way that sustained things for me. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Delta Spirit, One is One– This San Diego band wasn’t bad, in fact they were kind of interesting, reminding me of a certain strain of 90s a la Black Crowes and a certain strain of 00s a la Kings of Leon. So somewhere between commercial and indie, but the sound never quite gelled and rose above itself for me.
Diamanda Galas, Broken Gargoyles– It’s 40 minutes long, consists of two tracks, is by an avant garde artist, and has a distorted gargoyle figure on the cover. That tells you what you need to know, I think! It is an interesting grating unsettling sound, and just in time for Halloween, but it’s hard for me to imagine multiple listenings.
Divino Nino, Last Spa on Earth– Love the name and the cover. In practice, the results were too often way too autotuned.
DJ Khaled, God Did– I keep trying to like DJ Khaled. And I almost do! The positivity is infectious, and there’s a narrative through-line to the album, which is amazing. But holy bajeezwacks, the autotune… The only time it sufficiently lifts is on guest tracks, which are excellent.
Djo, Decide– This plays somewhere between an upbeat and catchy LCD Soundsystem/daft Punk kind of sound, and an 80s synth pop sound. There were a few moments where it mysteriously veered into 90s boy band as well. I appreciated the dark undertow of some of the lyrics, and the music was fun to listen to, but it didn’t quite come together as something new and different.
DOMi & JD BECK, NOT TiGHT– The description of it being fusion Jazz for Gen Z made me curious enough to try it. Alas, it was still kind of, well, fusion jazz.
Domo Genesis, Intros, Outros & Interludes– Domo Genesis was one of the earliest artists to receive the loop-based production of the Alchemist. And maybe because of that, at this point this sounds more familiar and like other things. But I think it was more the lyrical side, which tends toward the more cliche, than the musical/mix side, which I quite enjoyed.
Dylan Scott, Livin’ My Best Life– very pop. Very country. Very no.
Early James, Strange Time To Be Alive– James is signed with Easy Eye Sound, the record label of Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach, which gives you a clue to what this sounds like. It’s a good version of it but, maybe, ultimately not distinctive enough to really stand out.
Editors, EBM– A very fine example of someone doing strong 80s synth/post-punk influence well. Why is everyone doing it?
Eerie Wanda, Internal Radio– These were interesting soundscapes, and I liked the vocals, in fact liked the fuzzy shimmering swirl in general, but it was eventually too fuzzy, shimmery, and swirly to land.
Elaine Howley, The Distance Between Heart and Mouth– Almost a Nico/Velvet Underground feeling. Then a little more Laurie Anderson. Some post-punk. Some synthy. Ultimately too abstract for me, and energy off.
Elephant Gym, Dreams– Opens with a nice swingy jazzy ditty. I want to cast it into a lake of fire. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Eli Winter, Eli Winter– musician and writer based in Chicago. A self-taught guitarist, it’s all instrumental. It is very well done, and sounds like several things- led Zeppelin acoustic numbers, Jefferson Airplane psychedelic at its most psyche, etc. Well done it it’s way, but I don’t know that it totally succeeds as an album for me.
Erasure, Day-Glo (Based on a True Story)– it consists of new songs and quasi-instrumentals constructed from sound files from The Neon sessions that he manipulated and repurposed. It doesn’t sound coherent enough from an album point of view, but the individual results are often quite interesting. Some of them sound very like the pop sweetness Erasure we know and love, some of them are intriguingly dark and heavy.
Fireboy DML, Playboy– Nigerian Afrobeats artist. This sounds interesting in theory, but in practice it’s musically and vocally autotuned to hell.
Flung, Apricot Angel– Bay Area artist, so you know I’m going to try. I think it’s indie, I think it’s experimental, I think it’s shimmery and pleasant, I think not.
Fujiya & Miyagi, Slight Variations– An 80s electronic feeling, well delivered. I didn’t mind it!
Gabe Gurnesy, Diablo– This is good vaguely sinister sexy synthy electronic dance music. Not sure it adds up to an album, but it wouldn’t hurt to have it on in the background!
Gabriels, Angels & Queens, Pt. 1– Nice sweetly delivered old-style R&B album, but not more than that.
George FitzGerald, Stellar Drifting– The title might make you expect something like what this is- an ethereal, somewhat new age, but still energetic and fun electronic music. Not sure it adds up to a proper album, but I didn’t hate it!
George Riley, Running in Waves– This is very bright and cheerful soul that makes good use of electronic musical minimalism. It doesn’t quite rise above itself, but this London singer-songwriter has a great presence, and I’d keep my eye out for more from her.
Ghost Funk Orchestra, Night Walker/Death Waltz– Now this is interesting! Some minor chords, some funk groove, some experimental music. It eventually got too mellow jazzed out, but it was an interesting mix up until then.
Girl’s Generation, Forever 1– This K-pop album is very! I mean, there is very energetic pop! And it’s in Korean! One is mandated by law to find it fun! But it will not be in my picks for album, of the year!
Gloria Scott, So Wonderful– Scott’s last proper album was in the early 70s, but in between she’s done extensive background and session work for R&B and soul masters from the 70s forward. As you might expect form that, this is well produced, and full of classic sounds. It feels a little too familiar and polished to be a year’s best, but it won’t serve you wrong.
Goo Goo Dolls, Chaos in Bloom– It’s the 90s! And not in a good way! Help!
Hoang Thuy Linh, Link– Vietnamese pop artist! I don’t run across those every day. It is energetic and fun. And really, really all in Vietnamese.
Hot Chip, Freakout/Release– This UK alternative dance music act is in their third decade. It’s high energy, fun, unusual enough to hold attention. If it doesn’t quite add up to a long-term durable album, well, it’s still pretty good for decade number three!
Hudson Mohawke, Cry Sugar– There are some interesting sound effects things happening here, but it’s too often too autotuned.
iamamiwhoami, Be Here Soon– Goodness knows I like my arty abstract Scandinavians. And this is a pretty melodious version of that, but eventually too understated to maintain at album length.
Ithaca, They Fear Us– On the musical side, I truly enjoyed the brutal metal assault livened by occasional metal flourishes, but the scream vocals… Why so much scream vocals?
Jennifer Vanilla, Castle in the Sky– Billed as a pop performance artist, Boston-born Jennifer Vanilla, aka Becca Kaufman, journeys into what they describe as “jennifreaky” territory including ’90s dance, no wave, post-punk, art pop, New Age, and R&B. The former Ava Luna member, now based in New York, has also produced choreographed stage shows, a neighborhood variety hour, fake commercials, and a public access television program, according to a press release. This description could have gone all kinds of ways, but the way it went was delightful! Traces of 80s and 90s styles a-plenty, smartness and fun, thought eventually it got too into a mellow R&B groove to sustain its best moments.
JER, Bothered/Unbothered– At its best, this had the energy of late 70s/early 80s ska and its 90s revival, and an individual voice and pov that a young Black man in today’s America can bring to those precedents. At its not as best, it got a little too into the bratty emo punk sound of so much of the 2000s. Still and all, I have my eye on him for the future. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Jimetta Rose, How Good It Is– This hip-hop/soul gospel album from an LA artist is well done, but it feels like it too often veers into smooth and not enough into gritty and interesting.
Jockstrap, I Love You Jennifer B– Spare, perhaps even spooky experimental indie rock with a good mix of a sophisticated melodic sound and distortion and fuzz. Eventually got a little too muted for too many tracks in a row, but undoubtedly interesting.
John Legend, Legend– I’ll start by stipulating two things: John Legend isn’t bad, and many of these songs got my booty grooving. Not a coherent set worth, or justifying the double album length-worth, but there could be some lasting radio singles here, and that’s not bad.
Jon Pardi, Mr. Saturday Night– Some of this is great- musically straight up and lyrically and vocally straight-up enough that his party personality reads almost as a later-day George Jones. But enough of it is redolent enough of pop country tropes that it doesn’t quite make it as a whole.
Jorja Chalmers, Midnight Train– This Australian musician and songwriter plays in Bryan Ferry’s live band, which may give you an idea of what to expect. It is, I have to say, not bad for that ethereal pop, but a little too lulled too often for me.
Julian Lennon, Jude– One interesting thing about Julian Lennon is that, despite the vocal inheritance from his father, he’s always been more musically inclined in a David Bowie/Roxy Music kind of direction. What’s here is in that vein, and nicely varied, but it doesn’t come together as a whole for me.
Ka, Languish Arts– A philosophical, instrumental-infused hip-hop. I did appreciate it’s seriousness, but there wasn’t enough variation in tone or energy level to sustain it for album length.
Kane Brown, Different Man– At his best, this multiracial country singer combines pop country, electronic, rock, and contemporary soul/R&B in a way that’s unique and enormously hopeful for the future of country music. At other times, individual tracks are too much like mainstream pop country or contemporary autotuned R&B. Still, I’ve got my eye out for what he gets up to going forward.
Katarina Gryvul, Tysha– (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Kelsea Ballerini, Subject to Change– Ethereal, experimental, and abstract. Not bad, but I can only do so much!
Kenny Beats, Louie– It invokes some good soul ghosts, and does some interesting mix work with them, but it’s a little too much a collection of sounds without a coherent through line.
Khruangbin /Vieux Farka Touré , Ali– Ali is a collaborative studio album by Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and Texan trio Khruangbin. It consists of covers of songs by Vieux’s father, Ali Farka Touré. I like all the component pieces of this album origin story, and it is a collection of great music, but the foreign language element and track to track indistinctness keep it from fully working as an album for me.
Kokoroko, Could We Be More– octet Kokoroko, was its surprise hit, melding contemporary jazz, R&B, West African highlife, and Afrobeat. Which sounds nice in theory, but in practice was slanted way too far toward the “jazz easy listening” side of the dial.
Lambchop, The Bible– Lambchop is known for being eclectic and intelligent, and that’s certainly on display here. Some of the musical turns are energizing and exciting, some utterly deflate that energy, but none lack something compelling.
Larry June, Spaceships on the Blade– It’s a good enough lo-tempo hip-hop album.
Laufey, Everything I Know About Love– Icelandic-Chinese singer/songwriter, which I conceptually love. In practice, these are nice neo-standard ballads, lushly rendered and nicely phrased, but not really my cup of tea.
Lean Year, Sides– Duo of vocalist Emilie Rex and filmmaker/musician Rick Alverson, and it sets a musical, vocal, and lyrical mood in its explorations of grief. But is eventually too low key and same track to track to sustain.
LeAnn Rimes, god’s work– She’s much less in country vein here and much less in general pop. Which she does very well, but it never quite feels vital enough to consistently hold my attention.
Lissie, Carving Canyons– A country-inflected pop performance with some genuine emotion to it, but in general a little too by rote.
Little Big Town, Mr. Sun– There are sometimes that this contemporary dance-pop and soulified take on country is pretty affecting. There are others it’s too smooth and poppy. Still, they might have an idea on one potential future direction for country.
Living Hour, Someday is Today– They’re from Winnipeg, which I think is groovy. Other than that, it’s very lush and gauzy. Not bad, but indistinct track to track and as a whole.
Los Rarxs, La Rareza– Puerto Rican trio’s debut album is a sleek collage of reggaetón, indie rock, and R&B. And it was an interesting mix of sound, but got a little too autotune in the mix, which, combined with being in a foreign language, erected too much of a barrier for it to work for me.
Lou Turner, Microcosmos– Bright, literate, and well-played acoustic set, but a little too same in tone and tempo song to song.
Lucki, Flawless Like Me– A fine, spare, driving, autotuned hip-hop album.
Lyzza, Mosquito- A fine enough, very autotuned soul album.
Mach-Hommy, Dollar Menu 4– This mix tape has many nice moments, and some promising directions, but I don’t think it’s coherent enough or distinctive enough to function as a “best” album.
Makaya McCraven, In These Times– Some interesting tonal things going on here, if I don’t quite get it as an album, I don’t mind it. That’s a big deal for me and jazz!
Mamalarky, Pocket Fantasy– The off-kilter slightly hyperactive pop of this “tricoastal” band, sweet semi-elfin vocals of lead-vocalist Livvy Bennett and quirky lyrics were thoroughly charming me, but a mysterious two song lull early on, and another deflation at the end threw it out of contention. Alas! Still, I have them tagged for further study.
Mamaleek, Diner Coffee– Think a doom metal voice, weirdly off kilter lounge sound, and Nirvana at their most noise rocky. It’s actually weirdly fascinating, but I’m not sure how often I’d be up for listening end to end.
Marci, Marci– Kind of an 80s dance sound, with a kind of slow and easy and yet canned vibe to it. Not badly done but…
Marcus King, Youngblood– This is thoroughly well-played, blues-based rock in an American 70s kind of way. And that’s sort of the issue- so perfectly executed in genre terms that it feels a little set and unalive.
Marcus Mumford, (self-titled)– A Mumford & Son! Actually, the Mumford from that band on his solo debut (there never were any sons). As you might expect from his work in the band, this isn’t band. It does feel incoherent to me though- a lot of tones and styles, and guests, without something central holding it together. Doesn’t mean you won’t find a fine song or two in here, though…
Marina Allen, Centrifics– The folky stylings of this LA singer-songwriter reminded me at times of Joni Mitchell, and of more contemporary fellow-travelers in that vein. If that’s the cup of tea you’re looking for, it’s been prepared very well. A little too low-energy and same tone track to track to really work as an album for me though.
Marisa Anderson, Still, Here– instrumental acoustic guitar, darkly infected good, lighter moments did it
Maya Hawke, MOSS– playing Robin Buckley on Stranger Things and for being the child of actors Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, pretty, ethereal, too mellow, and same song to song for me.
mediopicky, mediopicky– Some interesting discordant sound choices, but the autooootunnnneeeee…. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Megadeath, The Sick, the Dying…and the Dead– I mean, it’s fine, but the 16th Megadeath album in 2022 doesn’t have quite the same impact that the first three in the 80s had.
Megan Thee Stallion, Traumazine– I do like what thee stallion named Megan does, and it was cruising toward a probable yes, but then an all-male guest track so senselessly let all the air of the aggressively gloriously female empowered rest of it that I just didn’t know what to do.
Michelle Branch, The Trouble With Fever– Michelle branch is, of course, not bad. And she’s doing okay here, but not considerably more okay than her best, or other people in a similar space.
MLDE, Marxist Love Disco Ensemble– I mean, the name is pretty amazing. While it is sophisticated and fun international electronic dance music, it’s both less Marxist and less disco than I might prefer.
Motorpsycho, Ancient Astronauts– I mean, this one’s got everything I love- a Norwegian metal band, a classic metal band name, and Ancient Astronauts. If you like your metal ornate and philosophical, this might be for you. I do like that sometimes, but apparently not for, say, certain 21-minute tracks-worth.
Mura Masa, demon time– The stuttering beat, driving mix, and high-energy feminist POV hip-hop/R&B has considerable charms. But then the autotune and pointless male guest stars ended up detracting a little too much from it.
Mythic Sunship, Light/Flux– Neo-psychedelic, neo-jazzy, all instrumental. Not bad, but a little too background and abstract to really function as an album.
Nicholas Craven & Boldy James, Fair Exchange No Robbery– Boldy James is a busy man! And I really enjoy the variety of hip hop he purveys. This is good, but I’m leaning towards his Killing Nothing collaboration from earlier in the year as being more coherent and engaging.
Nikki Lane, Denim & Diamonds– As bluesy rocking female leads go, this is a good one, but feels a little formulaic, and not especially standing out from the rest of that pack.
No Age, People Helping People– I haven’t listened to No Age since their 2008 album Nouns, which was a noise rocker that I loved. I guess it makes sense that they would have developed sonically in the 14 years since, and while I did appreciate every other song, the kind of very abstract neo-psych with jazz elements sound they’re doing on this album was hit and miss for me.
OFF!, Free LSD– If you like your hardcore metal-flavored and LA style and social and political, this won’t lead you astray. I do like all those things; thought I don’t think it exceeded the sum of those parts.
Oliver Sim, Hideous Bastard– It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the orchestral lushness, the homoromanticism, and the not infrequent tips of the hat to dread. But it is, in whole, a little too in one low energy vein track to track.
Ondara, Spanish Villager No. 3– There is definitely something interesting in the presence, lyricism, and lingering vocals of this he Kenya-born, Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter. However, the sound gets buried underneath a little too much sonic sheen and smoothness, and track to track sameness.
Osees/ Thee Oh Sees, A Foul Form– They’ve gone very punk for this outing, and they’re doing it very well. If this was actually popping out of the American punk/hardcore scene in the early 80s, I would have loved it! As is, it’s a fine execution, but a little museum formulaic.
Ozzy Osbourne, Patient Number 9– This being a 2022 album, by a veteran rocker, I’m naturally skeptical. This being Ozzy, I naturally want to really like it. And you know what, it’s not bad. Not up to his best, a little formulaic (to his formula), but it’s a nice listen if you’re in for that category of listen. And there are three tracks with, respectively, leads by Tommy Iommi, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck if you’re looking for some solid guitar god action.
Papo2oo4, Ballerific- It’s a fine exemplar of a certain strain o0f contemporary hip-hop album. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Petra Haden/The Lord, Devotional– The artist and album name might have you expecting gospel, and maybe it is. Gospel in the form of metal-flavored electronic music and disembodied aria vocals? It’s not uninteresting.
Pi’erre Bourne, Good Movie – It. Is. Quite. Autotuned.
Pink Siifu & Real Bad Man, Real Bad Flights- It sometimes got into the realm of really interesting with its unusual music mix and the glowering flow. More often, though, it lulled into something a little too laid back and indistinct to really hold attention.
Pixies, Doggerel– I am a huge Pixies fan, but I go into this upset that a lineup that doesn’t include Kim Deal is calling itself the Pixies. Maybe if I think of it as a Frank Black album that former Pixies-bandmates happen to play on, I won’t be as mad at it. In either case, though, what I’m partially measuring this against is the classic Pixies albums and Black’s best solo work (and I’m also a huge Frank Black fan). It isn’t that. It would, honestly, end up in my collection due to my extreme fandom regardless, but despite some fine moments, there’s ultimately a bit of coherence missing, and it doesn’t measure up to his/their best work.
Pool Kids, Pool Kids– I was on the edge on this one for quite a while- 90s kids doing 90s-influenced music with 2000s social media snark and lyrical sophistication is a happy place, and this Tallahassee band is doing it well. It does sound a little more smoothly produced than raw and vital, and a little too all in one tone after a while, but I will keep an eye on them!
Preoccupations, Arrangements- It’s some good darkness, but a Little too of the post-punk synth-pop nostalgia everyone is doing these days.
Promise of the Real/Neil Young, Noise and Flowers– There are some great elements here- a live album from a 2019 European tour in memory of passing of his friend/manager Elliot Roberts, band Promise of the Real fronted by Willie Nelson’s sons backing with a sure sense for the material. This all leads to unity of sound, Neil is in fine form. Song selection is good. I’d definitely recommend it to a Neil Young fan, of which I am one, but I’m not sure it works as a 2022 “best” album.
Pye Corner Audio, Let’s Emerge!– Like late Joy Division at their synth chilliest, but with no vocals. It’s not a bad sound, but it doesn’t make for a durable album.
Rachika Nayar, Heaven Comes Crashing– The opening track sounds like a new age synth dawn. I knew I was a no at that point.
Robbie Williams, XXV– This is a kind of greatest hits album, except with new recordings of highlighted songs from throughout his career. I mean, dude’s a pop powerhouse, and these are good versions. I can’t quite work it in my head as a “best of year” album, but fans wouldn’t be disappointed.
Royksopp, Profound Mysteries II– This grabbed me more than Part I from earlier this year did- it’s less muted, more energetic. Still not enough substance to really keep it gripping at album-length, though.
Sally Seltmann, Early Moon– It’s very pretty, and would be in good stead as an 80s soft pop drifting into 90s soft pop album. Eh.
Shannen Moser, The Sun Still Seems to Move– There are times this becomes galvanized and electric. The rest of the time, it’s a fine, literate acoustic outing, but doesn’t really stand out.
Shemekia Copeland, Done Come Too Far– Her voice is certainly powerful, and the blues music is excellent. But it a little too much by rote, and the lyrics are sometimes too on-the-nose.
ShittyBoyz, Trifecta 2– It’s got some verve and personality, and the driving and floating feeling of the musical mix is interesting, but eventually the more conventional content and moments outweigh that.
Shoko Igarashi, Simple Sentences– It’s a not-uninteresting, sometimes fun electronic dance music, but a little abstract and downtempo to hand one’s hat on. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Shygirl, Nymph– There are some things to recommend this electronica/hip-hop flavored mix, especially the interesting mix choices. But it gets a little too abstracted, and a little autotuned, a little too often.
Silversun Pickups, Physical Thrills– Tough call in some ways. I loved their debut album, and the things I loved about it are evident here. But, well, it’s fifteen years later…
Skullshitter, Goat Claw– I mean, you’ve got the band name, the album name, the first track is “Angel of Decay”. You know what you’re getting into here! Musically, it’s actually a really good evocation of thrash metal classics from the 80s, but it does get a little too hoarse shout voice to keep up with. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Slipknot, The End, So Far– Slipknot is as Slipknot does, but it does a little too orchestral and emo at the expense of musical and vocal actual vitality for me.
Sofie Royer, Harlequin– Some very pleasant international-sounding pop. Not sure it rises enough beyond that to stand out for the entire year’s output.
Son Little, Like Neptune– An interesting and somewhat out of left field R&B album with blues elements, and I appreciate the complex point of view, but it gets a little too autotuned at times, and in the same vein track to track.
Soulfly, Totem– American metal outfit led by Sepultura’s Max Cavalera that draws heavily from groove, thrash, nu-metal, and Brazilian tribal music. It is a fun and somewhat heady musical mix but tends toward the “too same” track to track.
SRSQ, Ever Crashing– This sounded a little too Enya-fied to me. Actually Enya-fied with a side of 90s pop hits and a pinch of Taylor Swift. Nothing of poor quality, but I kind of couldn’t.
Stella Donnelly, Flood– Off to a great start, lulled out with too many slows in a row in the middle
Sumerlands, Dreamkiller– This Philadelphia band is playing in an old-school heavy metal vein and doing it well. Not the best of your year, but if you like an 80s orchestral power-hooky sound, you won’t be disappointed.
Sunrise on Slaughter Beach, Clutch– I don’t know about best of year, but it is a joyful noise if you’ve been missing something that reminds you of Soundgarden in classic form.
Sylvan Esso, No Rules Sandy– More ambitious than a remix album but not dissimilar to a DJ mix, from 2022 Neon sessions, it is interesting electronic music, worth a listen but not holding together as an album.
Szun Waves, Earth Patterns– An improv trio working at the intersection of experimental electronic and jazz. I did try it.
Teen Suicide, Honeybee Table at the Butterfly Feast– The first track sounds like a shoegazey shimmer, the second is the kind of discordant noise that you might think/hope a band with this name would have, and the rest seems more like an actual soundtrack to a teen suicide- mellow sad indie. It just didn’t add up and hold my attention.
The Afghan Whigs, How Do You Burn?- Well, they still sound good, and if it were 1990-something this might be a favorite of the year for me. In 2022. It’s a solid “good”.
The Bad Plus, The Bad Plus – It’s an interesting jazz max, I’m not mad at it, but, eh…
The Berries, High Flying Man– Their mix of indie and classic rock is going well for the first few songs, but then begins to mellow grove out too many times in a row halfway through, causing the energy to fizzle.
The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness, The Third Wave Of…– Some fine neo-psych pop with country overtones. Not sure it stands out vis-a-vis genre or best of year, though.
The Chats, Get Fucked– Australian punk! 13 songs! 28 minutes! Based on my informal survey of going on two years now, there is a lively and high-quality punk scene in Australia these days. This is a great exemplar thereof. Not sure it rises high enough to stand out as an album of the entire year, but if you’re looking for something in this genre, it won’t let you down!
The Comet is Coming, Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam– It was starting off as an interesting musical mix, but eventually the flowy abstract jazz element came too much to the fore.
The Devil Wears Prada, Color Decay– If you want something that’s a little hardcore and a little metal and a little emo, and sounding kind of like many other things like this have sounded over the past two decades, this is that.
The Mars Volta, The Mars Volta– There are happy sunny 70s pop parts of the sound that I’m not mad at, but also a lot of extended mellow jazzy ones that just don’t retain interest at album length.
The Murlocs, Rapscallion– At its best, there’s a sinister-sounding garage-rock shake-down going on with this Australian band, and I appreciate it. At not so best, it becomes a little poppier and more swinging in a way that’s out of tone with the scuzz and sounds too much like a lot of other contemporaries.
The Orchids, Dreaming Kind– Some nice mellow easy listening rock. I almost tore my ears off.
The Soft Moon, Exister– Some industrial some shimmery 80s synth-pop. It’s fine.
The Wonder Years, The Hum Goes On Forever– 2020s top 40 friendly indie pop rock par excellence. Ugh no.
Thou, A Primer of Holy Words– This Baton Rouge diy doom metal band is here doing an album of grunge and metal covers. I’m a sucker for that as a description, and the playing is fantastic, but the vocals are too often too grating for me to hang in there.
Tim Burgess, Typical Music– Former Charlatans head Tim Burgess is producing some fine pop here, clearly influenced by 60s pop and psychedelia. It is undoubtedly enjoyable, but it does start to blend after a while, which at an hour and a half-run time is difficult to sustain.
Tommy McClain, I Ran Down Every Dream– When I read he was a founder of Louisiana swamp pop, I was extremely interested. And it’s not bad, in fact is really good, but the tempo is too consistently low and slow for it to really catch fire.
Tomu DJ, Half Moon Bay– Some nice low-key electronic music. Too low key for me, but it does sound a little like Half Moon Bay!
Turin Brakes, Wide-Eyed Nowhere– There’s something soulful about this English band’s sound, but it ends up being a little too slick.
Two Door Cinema Club, Keep on Smiling– A nice high energy version of the same neo-disco indie music space a lot of people these days are in. It’s nice.
Unloved, The Pink Album– This is an interesting run of sinister and sexy noise somewhere between rock and electronic, but it gets too abstract at times, and the hour and twenty-nine-minute run time is hard to sustain.
Vintage Crop, Kibitzer– There is some fine rock and roll emitting from this Australian band. It’s not revelatory, I don’t see it as a year-making album, but as a solid block of fun it won’t lead you wrong. (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Vinyl Williams, Cosmopolis– I don’t know what I was expecting from the grandson of John Williams, but this synth soundtrack sound with hints of yacht rock was a surprise. It’s actually very nice despite my snarky description, but maybe is not year’s best memorable or stand-out.
Walter Trout, Ride – The music from this 71-year-old bluesman might best be described as “white guy rocking electric blues”. He’s doing it well, but perhaps not new or different enough to get to “best of year”.
Watkins Family Hour, Watkins Family Hour, Vol. 2– Despite the title, this is the third album from this traditional Americana duo. At their best the energy and charm here are great, but some of the tracks seem to go flat. Alas, unevenness!
Whitney, SPARK– It’s a fine kind of contemporary R&B, but not beyond fine.
Why Bonnie, 90 in November– Brooklyn by way of Austin band, full of jangly fuzzy guitars and burned-out low-key vocals from lead Blair Howerton. It’s a good slice of lo-fi rock that has no major errors, but also never gets a lot beyond good.
William Orbit, The Painter– Veteran UK dance/electronic producer William orbit brings in an array of female guest vocalists for this album. What results is gauzy, folktronic, very pretty and pleasing. Not up to over an hour of listening though.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Cool It Down– They’re sounding as good as they did in the early 00s, but the sound was fresher in the early 00s and now there are a lot of folks traveling this territory, and it isn’t particularly better/different than the rest.
YG, I Got Issues– Good enough contemporary hip hop.
Young Jesus, Shepherd Head– Is this a new age electronic gospel record? I didn’t know, but I do know that I need some space from it.
Young Nudy, EA Monster– As with other things I’ve listened to by Young Nudy, I appreciate the horror aspects of this, both explicitly in the lyrics and the creeping sense of dread in the musical mix. As with other things I’ve listened to by young Nudy, the autotune and tired street themes keep it from totally working.
Young Slo-Be, Southeast– Good enough contemporary hip hop (Note: This is not actually a September release. It’s from Pitchfork’s Summer list of “34 Great Records You Might Have Missed”. I ain’t gonna miss ’em!)
Yungblud, Yungblud– Pop dancey with hints of emo goth thing. No thanks.
All right! With that, we’ve caught up through August/September, just in time for the beginning of December. Now, on to October…
Before we proceed with the July review, let’s do a quick overview of the three categories:
Yes– These are albums that could be in running for the year’s best. That doesn’t mean that they will. As of July, there were 103 yeses, but we only have room for 22. And that’s before we get to…
Maybe– These albums definitely have something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m giving them their own category, because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”. We have 93 maybes as of July.
No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crap. To be sure, sometimes you do end up there because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and ambitious, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to “yes” isn’t for the faint of heart.
Now that everything is squared away, boldly forward with the review of 95 new releases from July!
Amanda Shires, Take It Like a Man– Shires started off as a country artist, and there’s still more than a hint of that, but this is like haunted pop music of various genres, tied together by her plain-spoken earnest vocals and the bare emotional tales of her lyrics. Nanci Griffith’s Storms comes to mind in terms of pop smoothness combined with complicated dark depths.
Beach Bunny, Emotional Creature– There’s a bevy of younger ladies doing a kind of music that effortlessly brings together pop ballads and crunchy 90s influenced guitar rock, unspooling pop emotion and yet intelligent lyrics in the process (looking at you Olivia Rodrigo, Soccer Mommy, etc.). And hallelujah for that! Beach Bunny, a Chicago rock band formed in 2015 by Lili Trifilio, is in this vein, and boy can she work it! It may be glossy, and use pop rotes along the way, but nothing here sounds false, and every track is solid and fun.
Ben Harper, Bloodline Maintenance– Modern soul and blues master Ben Harper is back with a new album informed by, among other things, the 2021 passing of Juan Nelson, his longtime friend and bandmate. And it’s a master’s work- sometimes angry, sometimes yearning, personal, political, and musically informed by classic soul sounds and modern blues. This is an album that would have been in good company with a 70s Marvin Gaye record.
Beyonce, Renaissance– The amount of layering in the first track alone is dizzying- the personal, the political, the vocally muscular and subtle, the powerful homage to house with clever sonic details and twists, the sense of being serious and fun. And it goes on in that vein and expands on the musical front with a varied and deep celebration of 80s-90s house music and its various cousins and forebears, and on the lyrical side with raunch, snark, and an assured sense of power. There aren’t many artists around who can wield their own persona/myth for their purposes as effectively as Beyonce can, and she puts it to great use here.
Black Midi, Hellfire– The spoken word stream of the first song and weird hyper-lounge second somehow have the same voice between them. And so on with, depending on which track you’re listening to, cabaret, acoustic, crunching guitar, abstract experimental electronic, etc. I had a similar reaction to their album last year, but all the lurching around there didn’t work for me. Here it was on the edge of “too much” several times, but also the best kind of “too much”- like a later-day Bryan Ferry at his most over-the-top melodramatic, but weirder and goonier.
Florist, Florist– The elements here are simple- delicate acoustic, simple piano chords and strings, some gauzy distortion, a smattering of found sound effects, and sweetly lackadaisical vocals. If it sounds low key, it is, but it’s also hooky, intimate, and compelling. The alternation of songs featuring Emily Sprague’s mesmerizing vocals and instrumental/found sound pieces works well to keep the spell going. And this was largely recorded in a rental house in the Hudson Valley during COVID retreat, which perhaps explains the feeling of intimacy and authenticity. Producers take note!
Guided by Voices, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank– This is, I think, the 85th Guided by Voices album of the last two years? My count may be slightly off, but the point is, with them pushing out material at such a high rate, this album has no business being as good as it is. In this go, the musical chameleons seems to be channeling a “punk turning to post-punk” era, I hear many echoes of the Jam, Gang of Four, Magazine, Wire, etc. at the tipping point of the 70s becoming the 80s. Informed, for sure, by the prog rock bent of Guided by Voices. And it is a glorious noise!
Jack White, Entering Heaven Alive– This is White’s second album of the year, and consciously in a different vein than his heavier, rockier Fear of the Dawn. Against all general trends of my musical preferences, I like this better! It’s like a continued groove of the slower more introspective side of the White Stripes, and as such, is more consistent than the sometimes straight ahead sometimes weirdly veering Fear of the Dawn. But in a way that doesn’t sacrifice musical dynamism and brings a lot of emotional and lyrical depth from its greater subtlety. All right, Jack. All right!
Lizzo, Special– The opening track starts with “Hi motherfucker did you miss me?” then touts her twerk and celebrates her thickness within the first minute. So there’s that, but also, it’s vocally and musically just so fun, fun, fun! Great dance/soul music with a strong personality, musical cleverness (motifs from the 70s-90s abound), and rich buoyant vocals is a great thing. And I want to give it a medal for the way “Grrrls” samples from the Beastie Boy’s “Girls” while turning its whole concept inside out. Lizzo for President!
Mat Ball, Amplified Guitar– Every song on the record was recorded in a single take, with a guitar Bal built himself. As wonky music premises go, I like that a lot. In practice I ended up liking it a lot too! It felt in a way like a guitar playing pieces meant for other instruments- piano, I swear even shakuhachi- and doing it with waves of distorted feedback-laden sheen. All instrumental, which can be harder to make work as an album that sticks, but I can’t discount it!
Mush, Down Tools– This was so relentlessly retro in a very certain vein- its nervy quirky music, vocals, and lyrics reminded me of Modern Lovers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Soft Boys, and a half dozen other things of that related era/genre. If I take points off for originality, I have to add them back because it’s very well done, and fun to listen to. This Leeds, UK group never sounds like they’re ripping off, more like they fell out of that era with a heretofore lost original work.
quinn, quinn– Three cheers for hyper-pop! This 17-year-old artist has produced a disjointed (in the best kind of way) pastiche of hip-hop that musically turn the genre inside out while being personal, hilarious, and political. This doesn’t sound like everything else out there, and it makes me hopeful that there are still ways out of the rehashed, cliched sonic mess the 2020s has become.
Superorganism, World Wide Pop– The hyperkinetic pop of this London indie group has so much going on! The first track alone was a dizzying array of sound effects, samples, beats, and musical modes. The goings-on here are equally informed by dance, indie, and a 90s slacker feeling, which makes it nostalgic and contemporary all at the same time.
The Koreatown Oddity, ISTHISFORREAL?– This philosophical, abstract, and experimental outing from LA-based hip-hop artist the Koreatown Oddity is a delight! In between an ongoing motif of claiming to be British and posing as an American and musings on the nature of reality and subjective experience are trippy vocals and a heady mix of samples. This all might be a bit much if it wasn’t also highly listenable. Which it is!
The Sadies, Colder Streams– I wasn’t that familiar with the Sadies, a fact that I’m now saddened by, since this album came out shortly after their guitarist/co-founder Dallas Good died unexpectedly of a heart ailment. From what I’ve subsequently read, since the 90s this Toronto band has plied an area informed by psychedelia, garage rock, and folk rock. I generally don’t read reviews before giving a listen because I don’t want to prejudice myself going in, so I didn’t know about either their niche or their loss. I just knew that this album sounded like a concept album from a space somewhere between the Zombies and the Moody Blues had fallen out of the late 60s and suddenly plopped down into 2022. It is a mighty fine album, and a fitting swan song.
Ty Segall, “Hello, Hi”– Segall here is in a space reminiscent of both the folkier side of psychedelic garage 60s, and the more acoustic side of grunge. With maybe a little Big Star feel as a kind of bridge between the two? I love this space! And the lo-fi production provided by his home recording the album is the perfect setting for bringing out the sound even more fully.
Ahmer, Azli– There’s a muscular power to the beats from this Kashmiri rapper, and the mix at times feels almost industrial, while occasionally adding in local musical forms. The vocals also carry a heavy power, you can feel the lyrical weight behind them- his subject matter revolves around the state of emergency in the disputed Kashmir region claimed by both India and Pakistan. It’s almost entirely not in English (though there are translations if you watch the lyric videos), but it somehow retains its power even so.
BandGang Lonnie Bands, Scorpion Eyes– Dark dense tales, personal sounding confessions, music sparkling in its darkness. With a mumbled lurching delivery, and I mean this in a good way. There are cliches a-plenty, but there’s also power.
Chat Pile, God’s Country– The first track turned me off with its ragged vocals, and I feared it would be another musically heavily but vocally screamoed into the abyss album. But I was wrong! The punk/hardcore/metal edge remained, and the vocals were still ragged, but they cohered enough to understand that the roughness was part of the point. The vocal and lyrical attack reminds me of the brutal snark of Flipper or Jello Biafra, but with a slacker undertow that leavens the whole thing out. Thank you, little Oklahoma band, for reminding us that rock can still be heavy, disturbing, serious, and funny all at the same time.
Friendship, Love the Stranger– Country ballads with stripped plain vocals, rock chords, and internal tales of everyday life. The 2020s so far seems to be very heavily about musical nostalgia, but 80s/90s alt country is one thing I don’t mind being nostalgic about when it’s done this well. It perhaps lags a little toward the end, though?
Ghost Woman, Ghost Woman– A kind of 70s feel, a kind of dirty jaded 2000s rock feeling, minor chords, an echoing sound, hints of the Byrds, the Kinks, Del Shannon. These are all things I love, and it was headed to automatic “yes” until the next to last track came in too contemporary sounding, which was both boring and out of tone with the rest. Still, the rest is so excellent it tempts me…
Jonah Tolchin, Lava Lamp– A New Jersey-born singer-songwriter and musician who debuted at the Newport Folk Festival in 2012. The different pieces of Americana in his approach- folk, blues, country, R&B, all make an appearance here. At times it’s in a mellow burned-out vein, and times it’s heavy, electric and foot-stomping. The variability doesn’t quite feel coherent, which is the only thing here I take points off for, but I’ll definitely be diving in a second time.
Katy J Pearson, Sound of the Morning– This Bristol, UK native has produced something a little folky, a little punky, a little electronic, and, if the component pieces are not super-original, her strong vocals and incisive lyrics definitely pull it together into a worthy package.
Laura Veirs, Found Light– Neo-folk artist Laura Veirs has been very good since her 1999 debut, and she remains in fine form here. There are elfin vocals, multi-layered production on top of a fairly simple and spare acoustic musical base that cycles through several modes (acoustic, indie rock, pop), and emotionally intelligent, vivid lyrics. A lot of it is on the more low-key side (not unjustifiably, certainly pleasingly), which creates lulls that maybe make the difference from an automatic “yes”. Still in all, a solid and very worthy entry.
Paolo Nutini, Last Night in the Bittersweet– “Scottish singer-songwriter” is always going to catch my attention. In this case, his approach goes all kinds of places- sometimes in Springsteen/U2 bombastic direction, sometimes something more like post-punk spoken word, sometimes Van Morrisonesqu, sometimes straight up hooks and high energy 80s/90s style indie rock, etc. If it lacks something in coherence and produces a kind of sprawl, the advantage is that anytime I started to waver a little on one musical approach, a fascinating one came along next!
Planet Asia, Medallions Monarchy– I’ve heard this veteran Fresno rapper’s work described as “traditionalist hip-hop”, which, given that he debuted in 1997, means I’m probably a lot older than I think I am. It’s true though, there is a late 90s/early 00s muscular solidity to this mix, to his flow, to the tales of the street, to the whole damn thing. I’m not sure about “year’s best”, but it’s pretty good.
The Deslondes, Ways & Means– There’s a 70s feel to a lot of this- the singer/songwriter vibe, the burned-out undertow of the vocals and lyrics, the organ and strings pop flourishes of the era. Musically, that portion reminds me more than a little of Springsteen’s first two albums, although there’s also a pinch of the Band, Dylan, and Neil Young. A significant portion of the album is also in an 80s-00s alt country-flavored vein. The two approaches of the New Orleans-based group are complementary, so it doesn’t totally clash, but it is noticeably different. Two yeses that don’t quite fit makes a maybe?
The Fernweh, Torschlusspanik!– The name had me fearing some experimental German abstraction, but what I ran into was an utterly charming band playing with multiple strands of 60s and 70s pop, with a strong psychedelic and folk bent. It’s not the newest sound ever, but it is very pleasing! Also, they’re from Liverpool. I think there’s some kind of track record for good bands from Liverpool?
Westside Gunn, Peace “Fly” God– The ragged vocals, the unusual sampling and playful classic jams musical mix, the swirl of braggadocio, humor, and grim storytelling in the lyrics are all working for this. The music of this Buffalo-raised rapper has recognizable debts to Jay-Z, and relation to his cousin Benny the Butcher, but not unoriginal and still very well done.
Wilder Maker, Male Models– This Brooklyn-based band’s album is in that “this sounds like…” category. In this case, it sounds like several streams of classic rock, with an 80s production sheen on top of it, and some 00s indie rock polish and garage rock revival. The styles careen around kind of wildly, and the lead vocalist switches up a lot as well, but every iteration of it is hooky, and feels familiar while still being fun. I kept wondering about the coherence, but the charm of the individual songs kept winning through.
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, XI: Bleed Here Now– In theory I like the combination of melody, ornateness, and hard heavy music this Austin band aims for. In practice I liked it best when it led with hard and heavy, which wasn’t often enough on this album.
Al Riggs, Themselves– Somewhat electronic, somewhat jazz, very mellow. The lyrics are literate and interesting, but the low-key musical and vocal approach tends to subsume them.
Attia Taylor, Space Ghost– A synthy, glossy pop with psych and dance elements from this NYC-based musician. It was very pleasant, but a little too same track to track.
Bananarama, Masquerade– There are a lot of people these days doing an 80s synth-pop sound. None of them have a better claim to it than Bananarama does though! Really lush and solid, and if too time capsule for my taste, it won’t lead you astray is this is a time capsule you want to open.
Banks, Serpentina– Eh. This California artist is known for her electronic pop, but I found it all to be a little too dance remix and autotune.
Beabadoobee, Beatopia– Their album Fake It Flowers was on my 2020 maybe list, and there is so much to like from this Filipino-British artist, especially considering how young she is. Indeed, the best songs here are great- putting together dance/electronic music and rock (with a decided 90s tilt), strong vocals, and open vulnerable emotionality. There are problems with sequencing though, a few too many slower acoustic songs in a row here and there deflating the momentum.
Brent Faiyaz, Wasteland– A nice enough smooth-jams vein hip-hop/R&B outing. Nobody could accuse it of any significant wrongdoing.
Burna Boy, Love, Damini– A reggae-dancehall singer/songwriter from Nigeria. Things are at their best while African rhythms and soul/hip-hop are being mixed. Things are not as much at their best while heavy autotune is going on.
Candy, Heaven is Here– The metal is fast, brutal, and full of an industrial-noise edge. The vocals, though- I just can’t with the “can’t make a word out” screamo anymore. I guess I’m getting old!
Carlos Truly, Not Mine– The experimentation of this Brooklyn DIY pioneer as he tries different things track by track musically and lyrically in the course of this minimal soul album is very interesting. It’s so minimal that it sometimes lapses into barely registering, but other times the results are unique, weird, and wonderful. Three cheers for experimentation!
Chicago, Born For This Moment– I mean it’s the 2020’s, here’s Chicago with their 666th album, and Peter Cetera isn’t even part of the mix.
Dawes, Misadventures of Doomscroller– This California indie quartet’s outing is musically layered, lyrically subtle, and vocally complex. It’s also very jazz fusiony, and I just couldn’t sustain the mellow energy.
Delicate Steve, After Hours– He’s supposed to have an idiosyncratic sound, and I expect he does, but here it’s not showing up so much. What is showing up is a very lounge jazz mellow groove.
Duwap Kaine, Faith Like Esther– I will say that the flow is not bad, and some of the wordplay is quite fun. But the autotunnnneeee……
Elf Power, Artificial Countrysides– This Athens, GA indie band is doing a very nice thing. Indie rock, a little country twist, some 60s rock chord sensibilities thrown in for good measure. It had me on the edge for a while but falls down in being too same track to track to really keep working.
Flo Milli, You Still Here, Ho?– Apparently this female led gender-cliché inverted school of rap I sometimes really like is called “pussy rap”. In this case, the cliches (although inverted) got too cliched, and it didn’t have the wit of the best examples of this, but it was fun.
Gwenno, Tresor– Gwenno is a Welsh electronic musician. The first part favorably disposes me, and the second makes me instinctively cautious. As it turned out, it is an interesting mix, albeit it comes down too much on the ethereal/new age side of things. I did like that it was all in Welsh, though!
Ian Daniel Kehoe, Yes Very So– Canadian indie artist who delivers many different kinds of music, but this is synth-pop on the sparer end of 80s synth-pop. Which I didn’t care for much at the time, and even less so now.
Icewear Vezzo, Rich Off Pints 3– A solidly executed, very typical 2020’s hip hop album in every regard. No, please.
Imagine Dragons, Mercury- Act 2– I had the same reaction to this as I had to Act 1 last year- “I like imagining. I like dragons. Look, they’re fine. They’re very radio friendly. In fact, I liked several of the singles from their 2017 album. There’s nothing wrong with the songs musically, vocally, structurally. But I never catch the sense of anything vital or real from this album.”
Interpol, The Other Side of Make Believe– The nice thing about an Interpol album is you go in knowing it won’t be bad, even if it’s not quite your cup of tea. In this outing, they’re actually a good deal lighter and more in the vein of “mainstream” indie pop than they sometimes are. I like it a lot less.
JayWood, Slingshot– A lot of people are doing this neo-soul nostalgia space these days. Not many of them are from Manitoba, and he does a very pleasant version of it. But it doesn’t get a lot above pleasant, or very different track-to-track.
John McEntire/Sam Prekop, Sons Of– It’s a very nice sci-fi kind of electronic, with four extended pieces taking up about an hour total. A little abstract to hang one’s hat on at album length, but good if you’re in that mood.
Josh Rouse, Going Places– A nice 70s mellow gold pop sound, well produced, well sung, well played, but I’m not sure it ever rises above itself.
Journey, Freedom– I mean, it’s a journey album in 2022, well over an hour long, and doesn’t even include Steve Perry or the founding bass player. I guess it’s….nice? To know that somebody can still make arena rock? Just in case, you know, we need it.
Ken Car$on, X – I mean, the musical mix has some interesting elements, and the lyrics are interesting too. But good God, the autottttuuuunnnneeee…
King Princess, Hold on Baby– This is some good indie pop from this American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from Brooklyn, New York. The lyrics are literate, personal, and revealing, and the music and voice are lush, but in a smoothly produced and low key way that makes it all blend together indistinctly.
Kode9, Escapology– This is an interesting electronic mix, tending toward sci-fi sound effects. Which I’m always going to like, but not enough in this case.
Launder, Happening– Launder is the project of Californian John Cudlip, and they’ve produced a very nice atmospheric fuzzy layer of guitar sound, not unlike shoegaze music. Which is kind of the thing, as far as it being distinctive enough to linger goes.
Lil Silva, Yesterday is Heavy– This album by an English record producer, singer, songwriter, and DJ, is certainly well produced and intelligent funk/house-infused electronic. A little too abstract to stick with me though.
Lloyd Banks, The Course of the Inevitable 2– It’s a fine hip-hop album, has some definite dark drive to it. But is it doing anything especially better or different from other “street life” themed hip-hop albums?
M. Geddes Gengras, Expressed, I Noticed Silence– Long abstract electronic pieces. I’m not telling you not to do it, but it doesn’t work for me.
Maggie Rogers, Surrender– A lively and well produced indie-pop, somewhere between electronic and rock, with a nice emotional literacy and point of view. But just a little too slick and plastic feeling.
Medicine Singers, Medicine Singers– Like the other Native American-related album I listened to earlier this year, this one makes liberal use of sound collage and modern musical forms in conjunction with traditional music. When it’s on an experimental rock/noise wavelength it actually works very well, but it sometimes got a little too experimental for me, and other times too mellow jazzed out. Still, some very intriguing soundscapes here.
Metric, Formentera– Since their late-90s debut, I’ve really liked Metric when they’re on the more rock, driving side. I don’t mind, but don’t particularly care for when they’re on a more muted electronic kick. They do both here, so, I partially liked it.
Mice Parade, Lapapo– A nice shimmery jangly indie rock thing. Particularly better than other nice shimmery jangly indie rock things?
Momma, Household Name– This was very close, because I love my lackadaisical lo-fi rock female singer-songwriters. Clear influences here of the originals (a la Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, etc.) and of modern practitioners (a la Soccer Mommy), but in the end just a little too poppy and not equal to the best of this space.
Moor Mother, Jazz Codes– Their album Black Encyclopedia of the Air was in my top 21 list for 2021, so I certainly went into this interested. What’s going on here is not unlike the previous album in its mix of political/social import and music experimentation. As the name implies, though, this tips in a more jazz direction that didn’t always support the sometimes electrifying lyrical and sample work. Nothing here is bad by any means, but I guess that’s the danger of comparing to a favorite!
Mozzy, Survivor’s Guilt– This album is obviously indebted, musically, vocally, and lyrically to West Coast Hip-hop a la Tupac. And I liked that about it, but it doesn’t get much beyond the cliches of the genre.
mxmtoon, rising– I mean, you get me a quirky YouTube ukulele player from Oakland, I’m kind of preemptively done for. What I can additionally say about her, though, is that her song-writing instincts and vocals are impeccable. And if diy homegrown music is still the heart of this, the additional production level of a studio album often enhances the verve. Other times, it blands and standards everything up a little too much, and there are some sequencing problems. It eventually gets too uneven in that way. But if we had more smart, fun, unafraid to be sweet, but still incisive purveyors of pop like this around, what a world it would be…
Naima Bock, Giant Palm– She is one of the members from Goat Girl (in fact recently having left the band), whose album On All Fours was in my “honorable mention” for 2021. So I gave this a careful listen. This album is much more in an acoustic/experimental folk vein than their work. Which is a worthy experiment but ended up being a little low energy and same track to track to catch my attention.
Neighbor Lady, For the Birds– It’s musically and vocally very pretty, but all too in one muted country-flavored acoustic vein.
Ne-Yo, Self Explanatory– Some very autotuned contemporary R&B.
Nightlands, Moonshine– I saw that this was by the bassist from the War on Drugs, which immediately put me on guard given my failed attempts to like them. As it turns out, it’s quite a different sound, and actually kind of an interesting one- a gauzy and loungy vibe whose languid air belies heavier content. Didn’t ultimately work for me, but I’m not mad at it.
Nina Nastasia, Riderless Horse– This New York based folk singer has the earnestness, and a fine country-tinged sound, but it gets too same track to track to really stand out.
Orbital, 30 Something– More of a re-recording/remix of orbital’s now 30-year-old (!) acid house work. It is a great sound though! Two hours+ is a little long for it to work as an album, but it’s great music to trouble-shoot financial reporting problems to.
Prison Religion, Hard Industrial B.O.P.– This Virginia-based duo sounds a lot like the band and album names might lead you to believe. If you’re looking for something abrasive and unpretty, this might be for you!
Rico Nasty, Las Ruinas– I do enjoy the clashy, thrashy approach of this gender-inverted hip-hop, and the point of view. It’s eventually maybe too the same musically and lyrically though. Still, I’ve got my eye out for more!
Ronnie Foster, Reboot– hearing he was a 70s soul/jazz/funk artist who has been a frequent inspiration of hip-hop sampling, I tried. But instrumental jazz, I can only do so much…
Sean Nicholas Savage, Shine– It’s very nice pop music. Not more.
She and Him, Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson– Don’t get me wrong, I like She and Him, and this is really very good. Covering the more sunshine syrupy side of Brian Wilson is a great fit with their natural talents, and they do it well. There are flashes where you hear what this album could have been if it took a few more risks, but as is, it’s a little too reverent. However, Wilson fans, She and Him fans, and aficionados of new approaches to surf music will not be led astray by this.
Stealing Sheep, Wow Machine– The fact that 30 seconds in to track one I was checking my speaker volume trying to see if the song had started yet or not is, well, not a great sign. After that, it sounded like a series of recorded sound effects played to a microphone with feedback issues. It got more songy from there, in an extremely heliumated way with amusing sound effects. That was more fun, but I’m still a “no” on balance.
Stephen Mallinder, Tick Tick Tick– An album from Cabaret Voltaire’s co-founder. It’s really not bad if you want spare and somewhat sinister but oddly danceable industrial flavored music.
Steve Lacy, Gemini Rights– Once this got going, it sounded like 90s soul. I found that to be upsetting.
Stimulator Jones, Round Spiritual Ring– This Virginian producer’s mix sounds like a lot of the retro-soul out there. Not worse than any of it, not noticeably better than a lot of it.
Tallies, Patina– A nice outing, more than a little reminiscent of a certain late 80s/early 90s space occupied by, say, the Sundays or Sixpence None the Richer. So, you might well like this if you like that reference point (heck I do too!), but I don’t know that it gets enough beyond it to be a lasting album of the year.
Tatsuro Yamashita, Softly– Tatsuro Yamashita is one of the leading lights of the “City Pop” style that was popular in Japan in the 70s and 80s (and has lately been having a weird cult moment on US social media). And what you get here is indeed excellently done pop. It doesn’t necessarily make a lasting impression, but it goes down smooth.
Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am the Moon: II. Ascension– Part two of four album project, An 11-piece band, fronted by the married guitar slingers, which plays a righteous meld of rock, blues, gospel, and New Orleans funk. This more often wanders into overly-slick, or low energy drifting songs than June’s Part 1 did, and is still not working for me as an album.
Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am the Moon: III. The Fall– Part three! The sound here was very smooth, I appreciated the general musicianship, but it didn’t grab me. Maybe part IV will?
The Last Goodbye, ODESZA– Some nice international sounding electronic dance music. Eh.
TRAAMS, personal best– A fine album coming from a post-punk kind of place that lots of people are coming from these days and doing a fine job of it.
Vladislav Delay, Isoviha– Finnish stalwart of electronic music. It’s well done, and muscular, but a little too abstract ultimately.
Working Men’s Club, Fear Fear– This sounds like it exists at a late-80s/early 90s intersection of techno and industrial. It’s a good intersection, it’s a well-done version of it, and besides sounding so perfectly dated and typified, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Wu-Lu, Loggerhead– The drum and bass breaks and guitar elements and low-key chant from this London artist are not bad, but it fails to really catch and hold interest.
ZZ Top, RAW: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas– A semi-soundtrack recorded for a recent ZZ Top documentary, from live recordings in 2019. The band is in good form here, and reminds you, if your first introduction to them was in the slicker 80s version, what a raw honky tonk blues band they were when they started in the 70s. And still can be! Fun, recommended for fans, but not breaking new ground.
And so July is out, with nine days still left in September! Can we get August out too before the end of the month? Stay tuned…
We have now reached the halfway point in our quest for the 22 Best Albums of 2022! Or, at least the halfway point of the initial sorting-out portion of the search. That’s right, we’ve hereby completed six months of listening to new releases each month, and then sorting them into “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No” contenders for the best albums of the year.
If you missed the previous five months, you can find them here:
Before we get on with tackling June, a brief overview of the three categories:
Yes– These albums could be in running for the year’s best. If they survive the mortal combat to come!
Maybe– These albums definitely have something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m giving them their own category, because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”.
No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crap. I mean, sometimes you do end up there because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and ambitious, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to “yes” isn’t easy!
Now that we have that established, onward with the review of the 103 June new releases I listened to!
700 Bliss, Nothing to Declare– 700 Bliss is a duo made up of of Philadelphia experimental poet/rapper Moor Mother and New Jersey-born DJ Haram, who between them were responsible for two of my favorite hip-hop outings last year, so I went in interested. And my interest is well repaid! This often reads more as a densely sampled electronic album than a conventional hip-hop album, and it’s deconstructing a lot of current conventional hip hop themes as well. Sonically and lyrically challenging and interesting!
Andrew Bird, Inside Problems– This is interesting! His literate wordy lyrics and straightforwardly melodious vocals populate a range of musical approaches including swinging lounge, 70s acoustic, contemporary indie pop, even a tad Velvet Underground, and more besides. Throughout, it has a good feel for hooks. I started off unsure of the stylistic oscillation, but it rapidly grew on me. This is apparently his 16th studio album, so I guess I’m just catching up, and the excellence on display here makes sense.
Corb Lund, Songs My Friends Wrote– The title tells you what’s going on here, this Canadian musician is covering songs from a variety of contemporaries and musical fellow travelers. Along the way is some spontaneous and joyful country/Western/rockabilly/(North) American roots music and a variety of interesting lyrical takes and moods. It reminds you just how vital this kind of music can still be!
Damien Jurado, Reggae Film Star– A haunted 70s burning out into 1980 feeling, lyrics that are literate and sometimes feel achingly revealing, vocals that know how to bring out the nostalgic melancholy. This Seattle-based singer songwriter is in my age cohort, started recording in the 90s, released albums on some of my favorite labels (Sub Pop and Secretly Canadian) and this is his 18th studio album. I don’t know how he didn’t get on my radar before this, but I’m glad he’s on it now!
Fantastic Negrito, White Jesus Black Problems– This is great! Musically, it’s an R&B shakedown with edges of electronic dance, new wave, garage rock revival, 70s soul, and gospel. Lyrically it is a cycle of songs about struggle, freedom, and joy, and vocally it’s extremely playful and varied. Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, aka Fantastic Negrito, was inspired to play by listening to Prince and then taught himself. I feel like he’s teaching us now what’s still possible for an album to do!
Grace Ives, Janky Star– This Brooklyn-based musician delivers tales of internal and external misadventure, fantastically clever and lively synth arrangements, and vocals so replete with light sweetness and that they belie the wit, snark, and sometimes darkness of the lyrics. This all adds up to a fun and multi-layered pop album, and it’s especially impressive when you know that she’s home-produced and arranged the whole damn thing. Grace Ives for God Emperor!
Hank Williams Jr., Rich White Honky Blues– The idea is pretty simple: Have a producer known for getting good down and dirty blues performances work with an idiosyncratic country artist known for getting down and dirty. It works very well! Junior is in raw grizzled grouchy veteran form, the material is great, and the playing and production is sterling.
Hollie Cook, Happy Hour– This ska/dub/jazz mix from a British singer and keyboardist (and late lineup member of the Slits) is quite fetching! It sounds like a happy hour- not the loud obnoxious sports bar kind, but the mellow night out at a local spot where everyone is enjoying the grove. If it sometimes feels a little too smooth, it never sounds in-genuine for it, and it carries you along track to track like a warm current.
Jens Lekman, The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom– Technically, this is a re-production of Swedish indie artist Jens Lekman’s 2005 compilation Oh You’re So Silent. That compilation was taken down from streaming services years ago, and this re-recorded, expanded, and re-titled version has just been released in its place. It’s a hodge-podge of fresh revisions, almost completely unaltered original recordings, and previously unreleased material with audio diaries from a personal cassette archive as interludes between the songs. And remember, this hodge-podge approach has been applied to what was originally a “greatest hits”. It shouldn’t work, and it shouldn’t sound unified, but it really does- the saccharine perfection of the pop songs vs. the extremely idiosyncratic nature of their subject matter, the variety of styles, and the stripped-down nature of the production all feel like they hold together. And they’re practically aglow with singular talent and wit!
Katie Alice Greer, Barbarism– This is the first full-length solo album from front-person of D.C. art punk band Priests, Katie Alice Greer. Thrashing guitars, swirling metal machine noises, witty lyrics, and vocals that have at various times an arch new wave delivery, distorted psychedelic sheen, and 90s straightforwardness. This reminds me more than a bit of Bjork, but doesn’t feel like a mere copy- what I mean is the knack for songs that are catchy and fun, but experimental and challenging. Amen!
Kula Shaker, 1st Congregational Church of Eternal Love and Free Hugs– Knowing they’re an English psychedelic rock group, combined with that title, gives you some sense of the goings-on here. And, indeed, there are British psychedelic touches a plenty- a framing mechanism of a church service, a kind of through story about the fall of man, ornate musical production in parts, Indian influences, and lyrics sometimes given to extreme whimsy. What all of this doesn’t quite convey is how often it is blisteringly guitar rocking. Listening, I heard hints of all the concept album forebearers one might expect- the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, the Zombies. But it never felt inauthentic, or not vitally present. This band has been at this since the 90s heyday of Britpop, with a break and resurrection in the early 00s, and this 6th album shows what they’ve learned.
Lucy Liyou, Welfare/Practice– This album by a Philadelphia-based Korean-American experimental musician is, in a sense, very detached, even muted. It’s a pastiche of text-to-voice vocals, piano, and sound samples. The detachment works though, to take just enough of the edge off the confessional lyrics of family estrangement and therapy to make the content even that more raw and revealing. Yes, it tends toward the abstract and is over an hour long, but damned if my first impulse after finishing it wasn’t to immediately play it again to examine all the layers hidden therein.
Regina Spektor, Home, before and after– The literate and vivid poetry of her lyrics, the alternating softly and ardently compelling quality of her voice, and the orchestrated swell of the music behind her here are all working so, so well together! She’s been doing great work for about 20 years now, and it’s nice to see it continuing here.
Tim Heidecker, High School– Tim Heidecker is a comedian with a more than incidental side career as a musician. As in, he’s really good at it, making a philosophical kind of soft rock. This album is in that vein and lives up to its name. Musically, it almost seems like frat rock at times, but gets a hint of 90s alt guitar, and name checks music from multiple genres of the 80s and 90s. It’s full of authentic details of the travails of suburban teen youth. More than that, it evokes the sense of dusty nostalgia of teen memories, how everything seems serious and yet vague at the same time. Kind of peculiarly, it feels philosophical and shallow at the same time, all because it so authentically taps into its theme through mood and mode.
Yaya Bey, Remember Your North Star– Brooklyn singer-songwriter whose sound is a combination of hip-hop, smoky soul, dub, biting social commentary, and gender inversions. There are some things in life I’m not sure about, but one thing I am sure of is that the world needs more Yaya Bey!
Angel Olsen, Big Time– I’ve been favorably impressed by her on previous outings. She’s an excellent vocalist, and an honest, emotional lyricist. Both of those are on display here, in even more focused form, and the slow country-flavored background supports what she’s doing very well. It is a little bit all of a tone song to song, but a gorgeous richly sung tone.
Art d’Ecco, After the Headrush– This is a delightful and well-done romp through classic influences a la David Bowie and Roxy Music, and the currents of post-punk and new wave that most strongly reflect them. I had this same reaction to their album In Standard Definition last year, which made my initial “yes” list. So the derivative aspects may wear thin on repeated listen, but it’s so energetic and fun on the first listen that I can’t dismiss it as a possibility!
Automatic, Excess– So many people are doing this brittle post-punk 80s chilly synth early electronic thing these days. Does everybody have to keep doing this? But dammit, this Los Angeles group is doing it so well that I have to say “maybe”.
Bartees Strange, Farm to Table– His stylistic kaleidoscope of an album Live Forever was one of my favorites of 2020, so I was looking forward to checking this out. Here he often sticks a closer to a conventional palette in terms of music and production, but still pulls surprises like the first track, where a quiet introspective examination of the past year becomes a booming indie rock song, or the great surges of synth sound and echo in what had started off as more of a conventional electronic dance song in “Cosigns”. Sometimes the surprising moments are subtle, on others they blow your socks off. If it’s a little off in pacing and not quite as dazzling as his previous outing, it’s still worth another listen.
Cola, Deep in View– These veterans of bands from the Montreal art punk scene have produced an album that sounds like early post-punk. Spare, angular, driving, a little chill, and densely worded. There are a lot of people mining this vein these days, but I must give points for this being a well-done version of it!
Erin Anne, Do Your Worst– Crunching guitars of power-pop, crashing synths of high-energy bedroom pop, and a ridiculous way with melody. That’s on the musical side, on the vocal side she tends between pop-punk and autotuned, and lyrically, there’s romance gone wrong with some snark and attitude thrown in.
Horsegirl, Versions of Modern Performance– First thing to note: this Chicago-based trio recorded most of this album when they were in high school! It’s thick on guitars and fuzz feelings, both musically and emotionally, and brings to mind multiple aspects of alt/indie rock from the 80s-00s. A little samey track to track, but, return to opening note- they recorded this while they were still in high school! A very promising debut.
Logic, Vinyl Days– There’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of styles and samples on this album from American rapper and record producer Logic, well-deployed guest appearances, and some serious wordplay amidst the flow. On the lyrical side, there’s plenty of bragging, but there’s also plenty of humor, some serious message, and wild inventiveness. At an hour ten, it’s a little sprawling, but there’s a lot of good stuff in that sprawl!
Nicki Bluhm, Avondale Drive– A solid set of blue-eyed soul and country with an electric stomping edge and yearning vocals. In classic country fashion, this was inspired by her divorce, and the authenticity shows up in the lyrics and vocals. The music sometimes is a tad formulaic, but damn it’s a good formula.
Pet Fox, A Face in Your Life– I kept thinking, “This sounds like…” and could never specifically place it, because what it sounds like is so damn much from my alt 80s youth and 90s alternative still pretty youth. As this would indicate, there’s a variety of styles here. What unites them is a sense of romantic yearning throughout, and the deftness with which they’re all worked. Derivative, but it’s a great derivation.
S.G. Goodman, Teethmarks– This Kentucky singer-songwriter is a powerhouse! Moving between folk, country, blues, and some good honest rock, with vocals sometimes powerful and driving and sometimes haunting and subtle. Her lyrics have a knack for both bare emotional and topical anthems. Some tracks get a little indistinct, and you’ll hear influences for sure- Sheryl Crow, Edie Brickell, Ricki Lee Jones, even a pinch of Janis all came to mind. But it’s not a copy, and there’s something here that catches the attention.
Shintaro Sakamoto, Like a Fable– Shinataro Sakomoto is a psychedelic rocker from Japan known for bending genre, and that’s well on display here. You’ll find some swinging lounge sounds, some 60s pop, some psychedelia, and it’s entirely in Japanese. Despite the language barrier, it feels instantly understandable, and is like an overflowing plate of sunshine.
Soccer Mommy, Sometimes, Forever– This is like the second-coming of 90s guitar songstresses! Her album color theory was a maybe in my 2020 blog. I have some of the same concerns here as I did there- a kind of sameness of tempo track to track, some pacing issues. But the dark undertones of her music, vocals, and lyrics kept pulling me through.
The Inflorescence, Remember What I Look Like– Emotional female-lead vocals, high energy guitars with a pop-punk flavor, distortion! That’s the basic elements of what will always be a happy place for me. This particular edition is from San Diego, and while it may not be the most original formulation ever, I’m a sucker for the sound.
µ-Ziq, Magic Pony Ride– As electronic music goes, this was enjoyable and interesting. Ultimately not enough…something… Structure? Lyrics? Unifying theme? To really work as an album, but not a bad listen!
Alice Merton, S.I.D.E.S.– Smart and sophisticated cosmopolitan sounding dance-pop. I certainly didn’t dislike it but didn’t think it was enough above and beyond other examples in class to really stand out.
Andre Bratten, Picture Music– Norwegian artist Andre Bratten’s album is certainly well done, but too much on the chilly and abstract side of electronic to hold attention at album length.
Astronoid, Radiant Bloom– A description I ran across said, “fuses black metal’s volume and precision with the soft ambience of shoegaze and the steady repetition of post-rock”. To me, it sounded like it would have been very much at home on College Radio in the 80s somewhere between the Icicle Works and the Psychedelic Furs. It’s not bad, but not sure it’s “still talk about it in a year” good.
Avalanche Kaito, Avalanche Kaito– Players from Brussels’ experimental scene and a Burkina Faso-born griot. It’s a winning combination in many ways, bringing to mind the fertile interplay between post-punk and African music in the early 80s. Ultimately a little same track to track, and with the language issue, it doesn’t quite come together as an album.
Big Moochie Grape, East Haiti Baby– It’s a fine enough hip-hop album, but in a mumbly vocal style that doesn’t particularly catch my attention, and it doesn’t stand out thematically.
Big Sad 1900, I Don’t Tap In or Tap Out– I really liked the 80s R&B-sound mix of this hip-hop album and there’s some power in the vocals, but it is a little same track to track and it doesn’t have something that really stands out.
Bobby Oroza, Get on the Otherside– A native Finlander of Bolivian descent, his music includes elements of jazz and Latin but relies most heavily on a trinity of classic R&B, funk, and soul. So read the description, and indeed this had a beautiful honey-dripping slow 70s soul feel, with some jazz keyboard sprinkle. It’s very nice, but it got a little samey eventually.
Brett Eldredge, Songs About You– Pop country, but with a distinctive R&B swing and call-backs to a lot of musical heritage. It’s considerably less odious than your average pop country! Eventually it gets a little too cliché-slick and packaged, but still a cut above.
Caamp, Lavender Days– Some nice American roots music from this Ohio band. It’s more than occasionally quite charming, but it’s sometimes a little too 2020s indie folk produced slick.
Carrie Underwood, Denim & Rhinestones– Certainly well produced pop country, but the country goes for pop country cliché, and the pop is too slick and ornate in its production.
Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son– A modern blues great, and he does some fine Mississippi Blues playing and singing here, but it feels like it leans a little too much on form versus spontaneity.
Coheed and Cambria, Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind– Second of a five-part arc of concept albums around a greater storyline! Surging rock with prog and arena influences! Very well produced! It all feels a little plastic to me though!
Conan Gray, Superache– A nice emoey teen angsty thing that leans in a pop direction. It’s fine.
Day Wave, Pastlife– Bay Area band, so I’m pre-disposed to think well of them. And they’re doing a perfect shimmering jangling music with a lo-fi feeling, but eventually it gets too fuzzy and indistinct to keep working for an entire album.
Deliluh, Faultlines– This Toronto art rock group’s album almost made it! Its combination of a spare industrial synth with occasional grating touches and spoken word almost affectless vocals was oddly compelling until the last track which meandered and bad 80s soundtrack synthed around for eight minutes.
Drake, Honestly, Nevermind– Wait, Drake is Canadian? Why did no one ever tell me this?!?!?!? In any case, wherever he’s from he makes reliably good music with fun and clever touches, but this one was a little unfocused and way too autotuned for me.
Elucid, I Told Bessie– Elucid is doing some interesting things here, and has collaborations with some of the best names in the darker more creative reaches of contemporary hip-hop like Armand Hammer bandmate Billy Woods, as well as Pink Siifu, Quelle Chris, the Alchemist, and Kenny Segal. And the dark undertow of his flow, spare musical background and incantatory lyrics does cast a spell, but, it’s a little too same track to track to really stand out.
Emma Ruth Rundle, EG2: Dowsing Voice– The artistry of the experimentation here is undeniable, but it’s too much on the experimental/avantgarde side to be repeatably listenable.
Fashion Club, Scrutiny– If you ran across a band called “Fashion Club” on a college radio station in the 80s, you would not be surprised to hear them have this haunted, dark, melodramatic and melodious synth feeling. In fact, this band is from the LA indie scene of the 2020s. It’s not bad at all, in fact it’s kind of great, but it is so of an era/vein that it has trouble escaping that context.
Flasher, Love is Yours– This is a blend of post-punk/art rock I would have loved in the 80s. And it is very well done, but a little in the same vein song to song, and too bound by its time sound/genre place.
Foals, Life is Yours– I mean, I like the post-punk, neo-new wave, pseudo-disco sound so many bands have been exploring this millennium but…so many bands are exploring it. And do many of them stand out from, or above the others? In a “will be listening to this/thinking of it” several years from now way? I wonder…
Gaby Moreno, Alegoria– Guatemalan-born, her self-defined “Spanglish soul” sound encompasses jazz, blues, pop, rock, and R&B. There are moments when she’s simply outstanding, but there are others where the smooth jazz is too smooth, or the production is too slick. Still, for range and quality, a name to keep an eye on.
Giveon, Give or Take– The quality of this LA-born R&B artist’s album is high, the viewpoint is laudable, but urgghhh, the autotune!
Grey Daze, The Phoenix– If you were thinking, “I need some more post-grunge that sounds perfectly like post-grunge” this Phoenix-based band (who, to be fair, started doing it in the 90s, so they come by it honestly) has you covered.
Hercules & Love Affair, In Amber– Spare synth sounds that straddle atmospheric and upbeat dance, sometimes dolorous vocals, emotional and deeply internal lyrics. It’s not bad, but it is kind of low key, and not different than other such outings.
Horse Jumper of Love, Natural Part– Dreamy lo-fi pop that, on the upside, mentions tentacle porn and skunks living under the house. On the downside, it sounds a lot like a lot of other things that sound like this.
Jack Johnson, Meet the Moonlight– It’s pretty, it’s accessible, it’s warm. It’s Jack Johnson. But it’s also something we’ve heard a lot before.
Jasmyn, In the Wild– Somewhere between electronic, indie pop, and punk, Jasmyn’s music is fun. It’s occasionally more than fun, thrilling even, and I’d certainly want to keep an eye on her in the future.
Jean-Benoît Dunckel, Carbon– Against my better judgement, my friend and music appreciation savant Matt had me listen to Air, and I ended up quite liking them. That French electronic outfit is where this artist hails from, and what’s on display here is a lot like their music. Ultimately a little too like to stand out. But it’s great if you’re in that mood, and there is a song here called “sex ufo” so there’s that.
Jens Lekman, The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom– Technically, this is a re-production of Swedish indie artist Jens Lekman’s 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala. Or rather, what he did is remove it from streaming platforms and replace it with The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom. Linden Trees is one of two albums Lekman uses to revisit, partially re-record, and otherwise reconfigure older work. The other album he just did this with, The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom, made my “yes” list. While this contains much of the charm of that album, and originally came from a proper album as opposed to Cherry Trees “greatest hits” source material, it actually feels less unified. Among other things, it’s longer which makes an album “through line” harder to maintain, and it feels a lot more produced and less quirky, which frankly detracts. Not that there isn’t a lot of worthy material here, but it feels much less like a proper album than its companion piece.
Jimmie Allen, Tulip Drive– I mean, having pop country that leans heavily to the pop side and sounds all the slick, packaged, and cliche one would think based on that, except with a Black male lead, is different. That doesn’t really make it work though.
Joan Shelley, The Spur– A beautifully sung and played acoustic-oriented album, full of literate lyrics. It’s a little too all in that vein to work indefinitely, but if you’re looking for that vein, it’s beautiful.
Joyce Manor, 40 Oz. to Fresno– 9 songs in 17 minutes! So you might argue this is actually an EP, but the Ramones first album did 14 songs in 28 minutes, so we’re in a similar timing territory here. I also like how the title is based on an autocorrect miscorrection of a Sublime album title. This is some good catchy pop-punk of the 2000s pop-punk variety, but not sure it really brings something original to that.
Just Mustard, Heart Under– This Irish band is channeling some identifiable spirits- an angular haunted early post-punk (aka Joy Division), some industrial, some emo side of goth. It’s not a bad channeling, but it may not be new and different enough to really stand out.
Kelley Stoltz, Stylist– This San Francisco auteur has been doing great work reminiscent of classic 70s singer-songwriter sources for decades. It’s in good form here, most every song sounds in a way familiar a la 70s pop and the Nick Lowe school of new wave/pub rock, but also new. It’s well-done and all very pleasant, but it feels curiously emotionally detached and over-slick in production, and, at nearly an hour long, the sprawl doesn’t quite come together.
Luke Combs, Growin’ Up– Honestly, as formulaic dude pop country goes, this is top of the line. I wouldn’t throw myself onto a funeral pyre instead of listening to it again, but it still doesn’t make a “top of year” cut.
Luke Steele, Listen to the Water– This solo debut of one half of the electro-pop duo Empire of the Sun was self-recorded in a cabin in rural Northern California, which automatically makes me favorably disposed to it. And the electro-folk goings on here are good, sometimes quirky and quite interesting. It does fuzz out into an indistinct sameness a little too much as it goes on though.
Lupe Fiasco, Drill Music in Zion– The consciousness of this hip-hop/R&B outing is coming from an interesting place. And, about half the time, the musical and vocal accompaniment of it is great (I could have stood a lot more of the spoken word/poetic style that kicked it off), but the rest tends a little too much toward the autotuned.
Mapache, Roscoe’s Dream– It opens with a country-style love song for the artist’s dog, and honestly, I was all in at that point. From there this Los Angeles duo starts to stylistically vary, usually to good effect, but there end up being a few too many indie folk numbers that sound like all other indie folk numbers.
Martin Courtney, Magic Sign– I mean, it’s not unpleasant. But it is a little like some kind of cross between synth and yacht rock. If I were on a yacht, heck, it might be the prefect accompaniment!
Michael Head & the Red Elastic Band, Dear Scott– This Liverpool-born singer/songwriter is really a pretty solid songwriter and musician. And yes, you can hear hints of the songcraft of certain Liverpool-born songwriters past. It’s a little low-key to ultimately stand out, but it’s solid.
Michael Rault, Michael Rault– This Canadian singer-songwriter takes us through a sunny fuzzy slice of 70s pop sounds. As so many are doing these days. It’s well done, but it often feels like the (nearly perfect) form is coming at the cost of any emotionally vital substance to me. With so many others plying these waters, it takes something special to stand out.
Michaela Anne, Oh To Be That Free– A little country, a little folky, a little lush poppy. Not bad, but it doesn’t feel vital or authentic.
Mt. Joy, Orange Blood– LA band originally from Philadelphia, with the minor chords, the hooky melodies, the jangly guitars with just the right balance between indie pop catchiness, driving rock, and psyche flourish. But then it gets a little too into a bland kind of 2020s indie rock. Alas!
Muna, Muna– Some good, sophisticated pop from this trio under Phoebe Bridger’s label, and you can understand how they appealed to her and her musical approach. But it was too slick, autotuned, and produced to ever really get its hooks in to me.
Perfume Genius, Ugly Season– This is romantic synth pop as complex orchestral conceptual music, and as such, I can’t dismiss it as bad. I will say it tends toward a little too abstract and occasionally ethereal to really grab and hold my attention for a whole album though.
Poliça, Madness– A nice enough shimmery electronic thing, but, eh…
Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation– A reunion of sorts for this well-respected band, including founding member Steven Wilson, who’s album The Future Bites made my “honorable mention” list last year. I didn’t like this quite as well, though its mix of prog rock, semi-metal and synth/electronic provided many interesting moments and let me know why this band has the strong reputation it does. It tended too abstract too often to keep me consistently engaged, though.
Post Malone, Twelve Carat Toothache– Godddddd dammmmnnnnn issss thissssss autotunnnnnned…………
Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios– Recorded from Wainwright’s livestreaming a cover of Judy Garland’s 1961 classic Judy at Carnegie Hall with a four-piece jazz ensemble (and one appearance by guest Kristin Chenoweth). Classic American songbook source, and the material and musical setting certainly plays to his strengths. It’s a good performance, even if it is a little twice-derived to end up as a best of year.
Sally Ann Morgan, Cups– This was described as a “blend of Appalachian folk traditions, drone music, and light psychedelia”. I think that’s true, although it’s a lot more classical sounding than that introduction gets across. Certainly beautiful, but not really compelling as an album in total.
Saya Gray, 19 Masters– This Toronto-based singer’s album is a fascinating swirl of unusually-produced and emotionally revealing songs incorporating elements of synth, acoustic and experimental electronic. It’s never an uninteresting or unworthy listen, but in the experimental edges and variety, it never quite gels together either.
Shearwater, The Great Awakening– This Texas-based band has an international outlook and some interesting ecological ideas. The music and vocals, however, are…not interesting. A little too far on the mellow bleeds to ambient side of electronic.
Sound of Ceres, Emerald Sea– If you know that Sound of Ceres is a dream pop group, and if you know that they’ve extensively collaborated on this album with performance artist Marina Abramovic, you might be expecting things to be trippy and weird. And you would be right! As such, it’s always interesting, but a little too abstract and gauzy to work at length for me.
Stella, Up and Away– I did enjoy this Greek-influenced pop as international mellow jam music. Sort of an Enya, Dido, Everything but the Girl space, but with Greek highlights. It doesn’t rise much above nice. But hey, nice is nice!
Supersonic Blues Machine, Voodoo Nation– California’s Supersonic Blues Machine does something like the name might lead you to expect- plays loud, fast blues with a rock edge. And I was on board for most of the hour+ run-time, but toward the end it started veering too often into songs that flavored slickness and production over vitality and bruising noise. Alas!
Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am the Moon: I. Crescent– Part one of a four album project by this 11-piece band, fronted by the married guitar slingers, that plays a righteous melding of rock, blues, gospel, and New Orleans funk. This sounds great, a real 70s Americana R&B influenced rock sound. I’m not sure it really holds together as an album as such though. Maybe parts II-IV will tell.
The Dream Syndicate, Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions– The Dream Syndicate is in fine form here, but the form is a little dated, and not as dreamy as it was in the 80s. Alas!
The Range, Mercury– Electronic musician/producer/DJ James Hinton moved from Brooklyn to Vermont, fell into a depression, and then musiced his way out with this album. I mean, as someone with experience with depression, and as someone who’s experienced the lifestyle shift of big city to Vermont, I’m interested in the premise. In practice, it’s some nice, lively enough electronic music, but it doesn’t really hold my attention above a background level.
Tijuana Panthers, Halfway to Eighty– This trio from Long Beach brings together sounds from punk, surf, garage rock, and sometimes even brought to mind The Replacements. I’m pretty sure I would have loved this in 1986. Now it’s more of a reaction of nostalgic fondness.
Tim Bernardes, Mil Coisas Invisíveis– A beautiful acoustic album from this Brazilian artist. But, without much Portuguese on my part, and largely being in a uniform musical tone/vein on the album’s part, it never quite wowed me.
Tony Shhnow, Reflexions– The vocal flow is sharp, but kind of all too the same. And the subject matter is a little too 2000s hip-hop standard. On the upside the cool vibe of the musical mix does work well.
Trixie Mattel, The Blonde & Pink Albums– When I heard this was by an American drag queen, actor, and singer who was on the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I was definitely intrigued! I was expecting some kind of disco inferno because, you know, stereotypes. What I actually got was a fun, high energy basically emo pop album. I’m glad my stereotypes got busted, but musically, while fun, it wasn’t really distinguished from many another fun emo pop album of the past twenty years.
TV Priest, My Other People– Their 2021 album Uppers made my “maybe” list. This has all the same charms of that album- a spare and nervy post-punk delivery with an industrial edge. But it also doesn’t sound new or different to that, or all that different from a lot of groups I’ve heard in the past year and a half who are mining that same vein. Alas! A fine example of the sound though, if you’re looking for it!
Ural Thomas & the Pain, Dancing Dimensions– First of all, this has an interesting story- he had performed widely as a child soul singer and back-up singer for many notables in the 50s and 60s. In the 2010s a Portland DJ, learning that he was living locally, organized a band for him and got him back into regular performing. This is some good fun soul, with a jazz influence and 70s feel. I’m not sure if it adds up to a standout album, but I love the story and it works as a slice of fun!
Various Artists, Under the Bridge– Sarah Records was a Bristol, England indie pop record label active from 1987 and 1995, and hugely influential in developing the poppier more shimmering side of indie rock through its releases, which were largely singles. This is a tribute to Sarah put out by the also indie Skep Wax label, organized around a simple premise: the current projects of various Sarah-related artists record contemporary versions of classic songs by other Sarah artists. The results are quite charming and reinforce just how influential this body of music continues to be. This is great as a sampler, but it’s a little twice-derived to be a year’s best album.
Westside Boogie, More Black Superheroes– There is some freshness to this hip-hop album, and the more than occasional unusual touch, and it’s certainly well done. Some more of the more interesting parts would have put it into contention, but too much of it was focused on the now standard “street life“ clichéd material.
XAM Duo, XAM Duo II– Hey, a XAM Duo is a pretty good duo! This Yorkshire-based pair is putting out some clean solid electronic music, even if it ultimately didn’t grab me.
Yann Tiersen, 11 5 18 2 5 18– If you see the title, and know that he’s Breton, and much of his work is on film soundtracks, you might be expecting something quite disembodied and abstract. It does get there eventually which is why I have it as a “no”, but the first 3/4 were really solid techno with all the best butt-moving music and interesting sound effects that go with that.
Yoo Doo Right, A Murmur, Boundless to the East– Somewhere between electronic and an 80s alt sound that combines the darker sides of synth and “big music”. Not bad, but a little swirly and unmoored.
Young Guv, Guv IV– I liked this a lot better than III, which came out in March. It still wore thin after a while, but I did enjoy the shimmery jangly neo-psych (with occasional country dashes!) space it inhabited.
Zola Jesus, Arkhon– It’s not the elements here- looming feeling, dark orchestral synths, operatic vocals- are in any way bad. But it is indistinct track to track, and not a whole lot different from many other examples of same.
And that’s it for June! Tune in next time for July, when we’ll be halfway plus one…
It took us three tries, but finally a single month posting, and before the end of the next month. Victory! Or at least, you know, less defeat. If you’re new here, I’m listening to new releases each month, and then sorting them into “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No”, with the ultimate goal of finding… The 22 Best Albums of 2022!
You can find the previous not single-month reviews here:
We’ll get going in a moment, but first a brief overview of the three categories:
Yes– These albums, upon first listen, could be in running for the year’s best. If they survive the brutal winnowing to come!
Maybe– These albums have a considerable something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m giving them their own category, because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”.
No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bad. Though sometimes you do end up there because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting in some way, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to yes isn’t easy!
With all that established, let’s get on with it and review the good, the bad, the ugly, and the merely insipid from the 93 May new releases I listened to!
Action Bronson, Cocodrillo Turbo– A cacophony of sound effects and musical influences (with a pleasing tendency towards good old fashioned rock) on the mix side, and some variously hilarious and scary swagger on the vocal/lyrical side. He is now my favorite Albanian-American rapper of Jewish and Muslim parentage! His food show is really fun too, although I guess that review belongs in another blog…
Alfie Templeman, Mellow Moon– Swinging indie pop that bangs its way through multiple styles and has fun the whole way through. The smooth pop production is there, but so is an indie spirit of experimentation. Here’s to more innovative 19-year-olds making bedroom pop!
Arcade Fire, WE– If there’s anybody out there on the artier side of indie rock who does a better job than Arcade Fire at making albums that are artistically deep, emotionally evocative, and have honest to goodness structure, I haven’t heard of it. With this exploration of the ends of emotion and ends of empire, I had the experience I often have with their music, of starting off not sure if I’m buying it this time and realizing by the end that I’m utterly entranced.
AWOLNATION, My Echo, My Shadow, My Covers and Me– I am told AWOLNATION is an electronic-rock project fronted by Los Angeles-bred singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Bruno. They decided to ride out COVID by taking on a truly dizzying array of covers including songs from, for example, ABBA, Alan Parsons Project, Biz Markie, Madonna, and Midnight Sun. Sometimes their takes are more faithful, sometimes cleverly inventive, and always well done and fun.
Belle and Sebastian, A Bit of Previous– If there have been better purveyors of melodious indie pop the last twenty years than Belle and Sebastian, I’m not sure who they are. Every song here is smooth and on-target without ever sounding artificial or rote, and you only have to listen around a little to appreciate how rare that is. I also like that this album in particular feels like it has a slightly harder and driving edge than their music sometimes does.
Boat Songs, MJ Lenderman– The musical touchstones of this album are country-inflected heartland rock a la Neil Young, 80s/90s alt country, and seething hardcore guitar. On the lyrical side, there’s a snarky take on matters personal and pop culture worthy of classic Uncle Tupelo or Warren Zevon. This Asheville-based musician is truly producing something that honors multiple pasts and still feels individual and vital.
Boldy James & Real Bad Man, Killing Nothing– Detroit rapper James has teamed with crew Real Bad Man to produce this throbbing menacing set of songs livened by clever and unexpected mix effects. The vocal flow adds a hypnotic quality to the dark tales being told. It leans a little toward cliché at times lyrically, but for every moment like that there are a dozen where the power and musical surprise pulls it through.
Cave In, Heavy Pendulum– The metal crunches. The music swirls and swells in great waves. Sometimes it’s thrashy, sometimes it’s orchestral, sometimes it’s heavy. The vocals shout but you can make them out, and then another vocal which is more metal ballad kicks in. At times it becomes almost a resurrection of Soundgarden, then gets a little edgier a la the Melvins or Tad, other times I’m hearing Rush, even a distant hint of Zeppelin. Something serious is going on I think, but livened by a lot of musical fun. Even the 12-minute track at the end works!
Craig Finn, A Legacy of Rentals– A solo outing from one of the leads of the Hold Steady. Vocally/lyrically it’s pretty much spot on with the vivid tales of regular life storytelling he does, which you either like or don’t (I do!). Musically is where it gets interesting- there is a lot more variety and experimentation here than on most Hold Steady albums- it reminds me of the difference between, say, the Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie.
Gospel, The Loser– I don’t know where Gospel came from, but this is apparently their first new album in 16 years. And I think they’ve been saving up! Blistering metal, sometimes technical and prog-rocky, sometimes full of hardcore snot attitude. If you’re in the mood, it won’t do you wrong on a single song.
Joe Rainey, Niineta– Niineta, the title of Pow Wow singer Joe Rainey’s debut album means “just me” in Ojibwe, the native language of Red Lake Ojibwe in Minneapolis. If you didn’t know what to expect from a Pow Wow album, you’re just like me. It’s powerful in its own right, but is interspersed with a sound recording collage and an electronic mix that enhance it further and sends it in surprising directions. Worth repeated listens for all that’s going on here!
John Doe, Fables in a Foreign Land– John Doe has been exploring Americana/heartland/country territory off and on since the 80s, so in a sense this album is no departure. But boy has he jumped in to it here! The folk influences are in full flower, and the lyrical heft, musical excellence and dark vision all churn along.
Johnny Ray Daniels, Whatever You Need– Debut album from a 76-year-old North Carolina-based singer/guitarist who has previously been a key background figure in multiple North Carolina gospel productions? I’m in! And as it turns out, this is rocking good music from start to finish, without a hint of slickness or inauthenticity. Everyone who’s not a 76-year-old releasing their first solo album should take note and question why they aren’t doing this well.
Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers– As befits Kendrick Lamar, this is by turns hilarious, menacing, willing to explore ugly truths, and uncomfortably vulnerable and self-exposing. His customary musical and vocal kaleidoscope of approaches is there throughout, and, if anything, is more varied and experimental than ever. If it comes in a little long (1 hour 17 minutes) and isn’t as focused or structured as some of his albums, it also gets more powerful as it goes on. And isn’t the best hip-hop artist of his generation entitled to a sprawling double album now and then?
Otoboke Beaver, Super Champon– Rocking female-led bands and quirky Japanese noise-pop are two of my happy places, so… And indeed, this is brutal and hilarious. It reminds me, variously, of Bleach era Nirvana, a snotty young hardcore band, and the thrashier side of Cibo Matto. It’s a winning mix, and even the parts that are entirely in Japanese work.
Porridge Radio, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky– Wow do I love what this English group is doing here. Musically, you’ll hear some of the synth-pop 80s, some of the Cure/Siouxsie side of things, and a fair nod to the darker side of emo. Vocally, the lead singer often comes across as anguished, even harrowing at times, but it never rings false. And it’s livened by some darkly funny lyrics that have a genuine bite to them. Their album Every Bad was on my 2020 final list, and it looks like I’m still buying what they’re selling!
Steven Lambke, Volcano Volcano– This Canadian singer-songwriter’s album is mostly in an acoustic vein, but with richly supporting instrumentation redolent of classic rock. That, and the combination of Lambke’s wispy vocals and densely intelligent lyrics, casts an entrancing spell. Though spare, there are layers here that bear repeated listening.
Tess Parks, And Those Who Were Seen Dancing– This starts off with slow grooving songs, blues and R&B chord changes, fuzzy and echoey, with dark complex lyrics and languid vocals. All this is still going on, but it gets some darkly surging rock going on later without losing the flowing feeling. This Toronto singer-songwriter is someone to keep an eye on!
Yves Jarvis, The Zug– This album by Montreal-based musician Jean-Sébastien Audet is really something! In (large) part, it’s in the vein of mellower folk-tinged psychedelia from the late 60s/early 70s. But interpreted with more than a dash of bright, quirky electronic music, and sometimes the kind of fusion of philosophical flights and confessional material you might find from, say, Sufjan Stevens. Both a fun and interesting listen, and layers of what’s going on here that are well worth re-exploring!
Andrew Leahey & the Homestead, American Static, Vol. 2– It’s like one just accidentally tuned in to 40 minutes of AOR radio from the 70s. Which makes for a very agreeable 40 minutes! It’s not over-brimming with originality and does fall a little into sameness track to track, but it never feels false.
Def Leppard, Diamond Star Halos– Def Leppard, who are a great band, paying tribute to the great 70s music that first inspired them (hence the T Rex lyric reference in the album title) by making songs in that vein. This is a good set-up! I don’t know that I can always hear those influences on the tracks here, but when I can, it’s amazing. The rest of the time it’s “merely” a really good Def Leppard album.
Harry Styles, Harry’s House– Against my better judgement, I really liked this! Several different schools of pop are being explored here, from mellow acoustic, 60s Britpop, to neo-dance music, and they’re being explored well. He really has become a legit artist in his own right! The marks off, such as they are, are coming from a lack of the coherence that could have really cemented it as an album.
Leikeli47, Shape Up– This New York musician is known for being so private she’s never performed without her face covered. That’s a curiousity, but the real deal is her strong beats, husky sensual hypnotic flow, fun musical, vocal, and lyrical twists, and delightful inversion of hip-hop gender dynamics. She sometimes waxes downright ballady along the way as well. There’s some lack of album coherence/structure keeping this from getting to “yes”, but it’s still a strong package.
Let It Be Blue, !!!– The first track was a nice moody acoustic ballad, the second is a very techno electronic outing, the third is more dance club and neo-disco, and now I just don’t know what is going on! It continued in that vein, and afterward I read that they are a twenty-year-old unconventional dance-punk band. I’ll say! It’s never less than unusual, interesting, and fun the whole way through, and their cover of “Man on the Moon” as a dance club power-song is amazing. I’m still not sure about the intro track, which is so unlike the rest in tone, but I have to consider it a maybe!
Midland, The Last Resort: Greetings From– I was favorably impressed by their album The Sonic Ranch from last year, and this neo-traditionalist country band from Texas has done it again here. It veers a little toward cliché, but if the median country band had this much respect for the musicianship and songcraft of country, along with some rock verve, we’d be in great shape collectively.
Say Sue Me, The Last Thing Left– I think I was expecting something more…K-Poppy?… from an indie rock band from Busan, South Korea. What we have here, though, is as fine a set of shimmering, chord-working, strongly felt and sung jangle-pop songs as you could hope to find. Very much in a vein that’s not surprising from an 80s alt or 90s-00s indie rock world, but no less solid for it. Maybe!
Slang, Cockroach in a Ghost Town– A sort of Pacific Northwest indie supergroup- composed of lead singer Drew Grow (Modern Kin and Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives), drummer Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, and Wild Flag), lead guitarist Anita Lee Elliot (Viva Voce) and bassist Kathy Foster (the Thermals and Roseblood). They’ve all learned their craft well, and they work well on it together.
Tank and the Bangas, Red Balloon– Oh, this was so close! This new Orleans group mixes together genres, and had, at times, an almost early 80s hip-hop feeling, other times something jazzier, and sometimes verging on downright psychedelic. And the hilarious and just downright weird cutting up they do during and between pieces is a delight. There were a few spots where it became more easy listening jazz, and that’s what threw my off. But I’m surely going to listen again!
Uffie, Sunshine Factory– This rapper, DJ, and singer/songwriter has been working furiously in collaboration with others and behind the scenes for years and has put out music on social media and via EP, but this is her debut solo album. On the one hand, it is autotuned dance music par excellence. On the other, it is utterly given to the genre, and milks it for all the glitz and tawdry afterburn it’s worth. If anything, the only thing that threw me off was a flat song or two that didn’t have the sparkle of the rest.
VERO, Unsoothing Interior– Stockholm trio! You know how I feel about Scandinavians… Some excellent angular post-punk, moody and sometimes thrashy, a la Elastica. It’s not the newest sounding thing in the world, but it I liked it more track by track as I listened.
Wilco, Cruel Country– Wilco getting back to their (that is, Uncle Tupelo’s) alt country roots. A lot of this sounds familiar to that era, and also hearkens back to some solid Alex Chilton. It’s very good, and the best moments are haunting and yearning. But I’m not quite sure it sustains the double-album length.
Alex Izenberg, I’m Not Here– This Los Angeles musician wrestling with his diagnosis of schizophrenia is certainly interesting, lyrically and musically. It’s in a dreamy, heavy 70s pop space, which when it works, works very well with what he’s doing. It often gets a little too fuzzy and indistinct to maintain, though.
Bad Bunny, Un Verano Sin Ti– There’s a lot in this kaleidoscope of sound and winning personality to love, but there’s also a lot of autotune, it’s closing in on an hour and a half which is a hard length to pull off, and well, I don’t understand Spanish well enough.
Blut aus Nord, Disharmonium: Undreamable Abysses– I mean, it’s a French Black Metal band, so I’m listening.
Brandon Coleman, Interstellar Black Space– When this jazz keyboardist with a love for funk leans in a funk direction on this album, it’s excellent. When it leans a little more in the jazz direction, it’s still good, but gets a too smooth and flowy to capture attention at album length.
Brian Jackson, This is Brian Jackson– Jackson was Gil Scott-Heron’s musical collaborator for most of the 70s. There’s no questioning the excellence, but it does sound very much of an era, and leans way too much toward smooth jazz for me.
Bruce Hornsby, ‘Flicted– I don’t know what I was expecting from Bruce Hornsby based on my 80s memories, but it certainly wasn’t this extremely experimental outing. For the first two thirds, you can certainly hear his jazzy mellow chords here and there, but it almost feels like the whole thing was produced as electronica. It was headed toward a yes or at least a maybe before it dipped back into the conventional and expected for the final third.
Chris Bathgate, The Significance of Peaches– This Michigan singer/songwriter certainly has some powerful songs, and they are nicely informed by Americana while at their heart being spare and driving. As a whole, though, it was a little too spare and same track to track to really sustain at album length for me.
Dama Scout, gen wo lai (come with me)– UK indie pop band Dama Scout has produced something of quality certainly, and they make interesting use of the lead singer’s Hong Kong heritage, but it’s all a little too dreamy and gauzy musically to hold attnetion.
Dean Spunt/John Wiese, The Echoing Shell– No Age’s drummer and a noise pop rocker collaborate. I do love No Age, and have a lot of fondness for noise pop, but this particular outing is a little too gleefully grating to work as a repeatably listenable album.
Dehd, Blue Skies– This Chicago-based indie band has done a very fine indie rock album redolent of 80s alt at the intersection of pop and darker more haunted concerns. If it was the 80s, I would have loved it! As it is now, I like it, and can certainly recommend it to anyone in that mood.
Dreezy, Hitgirl– Singer, rapper, songwriter, and actress Seandrea Sledge, aka Dreezy, has some strong flow here, and I enjoy her attitude. But it is a bit too one-note vocally, musically, and lyrically to work at album length.
Ella Mai, Heart on My Sleeve– Not a bad example of 2020s soul/R&B, which is to say- holy gawd the autotune!
Emeile Sande, Let’s Say For Instance– The first track was so autotuned to hell I could barely get through it. It got a little better from there, but not enough.
Ethel Cain, Preacher’s Daughter– Certainly impassioned, moody, and full of feeling, with high quality production. But, at over an hour and the songs all blending together in one vein, it doesn’t work as an album.
Florence + the Machine, Dance Fever– I mean, of course, not bad. Butalso not different from, better than or even as good as her earlier highlights. this is definitely an example of the perils of getting compared to yourself, but there it is.
Girlpool, Forgiveness– The gauzy beauty of these songs belies the portraits of dark lives they contain. Unfortunately, it belies it a little too much, so the point doesn’t fully land.
Grant-Lee Phillips, All That You Can Dream– Redolent of classic sounds a la Neil Young and Alex Chilton from 70s glory. However, it’s all too much in a narrow range to totally work. But if you’re looking for darkly inflected low-key songs from the heartland, this won’t lead you astray!
HAAi, Baby, We’re Ascending– This is not bad as an electronic music album goes, but it doesn’t rise above.
Hater, Sincere– I’m pre-disposed to love Swedes, and indeed between a shimmering 80s synth/goth sound and some jagged feedback-laden guitar parts I do like this. I would have outright loved it in the 80s, but it sounds a pinch dated now.
Hyaline, Maria BC– This Oakland-based band reminds me at moments of Kate Bush. It’s vocally and musically lovely, but ultimately too all in one low-key vein to sustain at album length.
Ibeyi, Spell 31– “Afro-French Cuban musical duo consisting of twin sisters who sing in English, French, Spanish and Yoruba” is a heck of a tag. And indeed, there are some very interesting genre-bridging things aswirl here. It doesn’t quite come together as a whole, and has some autotuned moments it really doesn’t need, but I’d keep my eye on Ibeyi!
Jack Harlow, Come home the kids miss you– This latest outing from Kentucky rapper Harlow was sometimes musically surprising and dynamically flowing, but more frequently felt curiously flat.
Jahmal Padmore, Esparanto– It’s a mellow jazzy affair that dips into multiple genres and would be great if you were looking for a mellow jazzy affair.
Jeshi, Universal Credit– Certainly some strong beats and good flow from this UK hip-hop artist, but it never quite seems to stand out.
Jordana, Face the Wall– It’s a little dancey, it’s a little boisterous young rock girl, it’s a little confessional. It doesn’t stand out on any of these accounts, but there’s promise here.
Julmud, Tuqoos– I believe this is my first album from a Palestinian DJ! Hopefully not my last- while the musical mix was a little too abstract to work for me at album length, he is doing some fun and interesting things with electronic music here.
Kevin Morby, This is a Photograph– Oh, this Texas-born American songwriter got close! Somewhere between country and singer-songwriter, musically pleasing and lyrically affecting. But, at the end of the day it was a little too production-polished at the expense of vitality.
Kikagaku Moyo, Kumoyo Island– Japanese psych-rock group. It’s interesting, but too often too slickly produced at the expense of the vitally weird.
Levon Helm/Mavis Staples, Carry Me Home– I think on the issue of currency I have trouble seeing it as “best of year” album (it was recorded live in 2011) but these two greats of American music do sound pretty darn good together.
Liam Gallagher, C’mon You Know– Not a surprise, this sounded a lot like an Oasis album. And for a good long time, I thought it was an Oasis album that I really liked, then it became one that I merely liked.
Lyle Lovett, 12th of June– Lyle Lovett has always been a) excellent and b) idiosyncratic. Both of those are on display here! While the swinging jazz lounge/standards space going on here is well done, it sounds sort of museum piece and doesn’t rise a lot above what it’s doing. A very pleasant ride on the way to that though!
M Huncho, Chasing Euphoria– This British rapper and singer has a pleasant jazzy vibe, but he ends up being a little too autotuned and undistinguished track to track.
Mandy Moore, In Real Life– While it doesn’t rise to what I think of as “year standout” level, it is very nice to see Mandy Moore doing so well with smart substantive pop songs. A little too produced for my taste, but there’s lots worse that can happen.
Matmos, Regards/Uklony dla Boguslaw Schaeffer– Innovative experimental electronic duo records a reimagining and reassembling of the works of Polish composer, theoretician, playwright, critic, and teacher Bogusław Schaeffer commissioned by the Instytutu Adama Mickiewicza as part of the Niepodlegla program. I’m not sure how this made it onto my “to listen to” list, it is, exactly as the description would lead one to expect, highly abstract electronic music.
Moderat, More D4ta– The synth and repetitive beat waves wash over me in this electronic album. It’s not a bad wash. But…
Mono, My Story, the Buraku Story [Original Soundtrack]– Experimental Japanese indie rock soundtracks could go in all kinds of ways, but the way this one went was nearly ambient, which doesn’t hold an album’s worth of attention. The discrimination against the Buraku “class” in Japan though is a worthy documentary subject!
Monophonics, Sage Motel– There’s a great retro-soul feeling here, but it stays a little too much in that retro groove to really kick in.
Perel, Jesus Was an Alien– If I say this is new wave influenced electro-disco from a Berlin-based DJ, you may develop a pretty accurate sense of what it sounds like. It’s chilly good fun, well done, but doesn’t vary internally or stand out a lot from its own sound.
Phelimuncasi, Ama Gogela– A gqom trio from the Mlaszi township of Durban, South Africa. Like me, you may not know, but I learned that “gqom” is a genre of electronic dance music that emerged in South Africa, descended from local varieties of house music. Sonically this is very interesting, but the repetitive nature and the language barrier kept it from fully gelling for me.
Project Gemini, The Children of Scorpio– Project Gemini is guided by the musical vision of psychedelic devotee, breakbeat enthusiast, and ’70s film soundtrack lover Paul Osborne, which gives you a fair idea of what it sounds like. It’s fun and dynamic, but being all instrumental it never quite lands for me as an album in total.
Quelle Chris, Deathfame– There was a nice unconventionality to the music mix from this Detroit rapper, and some traces of conscious hip-hop, but it never quite gelled together in a way that helped it stand out from the low-key mellow grove it was in track to track.
Quinquis, Seim– I saw this described in one source as “Heavy atmospheric electronica from Breton.” That’s right, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it does tend a little ethereal and is all foreign language, so it’s hard to get it to the top of my list for the year.
Ravyn Lenae, Hypnos– This is a not bad debut R&B album, but also not one that really stands out. Glimmers of future promise though!
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Endless Rooms– This Australian indie rock band makes nice and jangly white boy rock. It doesn’t sound especially better or different than multiple other examples of the same.
Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong– There is nothing wrong with Sharon van Etten’s voice, moody music, or songwriting. The issue, I think, is that while the results can be gorgeous and moving on a single song, the songs are all so much alike that it gets difficult to sustain at album length.
Sigrid, How to Let Go– She’s a Norwegian pop star, which makes me smile. It’s definitely good clean fun, and sometimes rises above to energetic and arresting. Not often enough, though.
Sly Johnson, 55.4– My sources inform me that, “Hailing from Paris, Sylvère Johnson (Sly Johnson) is a major force on the French Hip-Hop, Soul and Jazz scenes.” And that’s what it sounds like, not in bad way, actually in a really well-produced way. But one that eventually feels a little more packaged and produced than vital and real.
SOAK, If I Never Know You Like This Again– This Irish singer-songwriter is certainly talented, and the confessional personal songs and genuinely emotional vocals are affecting. As is the substantive way the lyrics deal with their non-binary identification. It does end up vocally and musically in too limited of a range eventually. But it was close!
Soccer96, Inner Worlds– A nice electronic music album, but it eventually gets too far in the direction of post-modern lounge music.
Stars, From Capelton Hill– This was a little confounding- some of these songs were great pop rock redolent of different eras, some of them were haunting atmospheric ballads, and then some, at regular intervals, were overproduced shallow indie pablum. Eventually it got to be too inconsistent in this regard, but the highs were great.
Sunflower Bean, Headful of Sugar– When it has some verve to it this is really pretty good, but it too often goes downtempo and fuzzes together.
The Black Keys, Dropout Boogie– I do love me some Black Keys, and there isn’t a bad song on this album. What there is, though, is a confusing lack of pacing. Blistering shakedowns, mellower 70s style grooves seem sprinkled around at random, and the momentum keeps getting off. This is one of the ways that sometimes, a bunch of fine songs don’t add up to a good album.
The Chainsmokers, So Far So Good– A little pop-rock, a little electronic dance, very autotuned, please cast it into a lake of fire.
The Frightnrs, Always– It’s a nice mellow groove from this New York City dub/rocksteady band, but it never really catches on.
The Pineapple Thief, Give it Back– A nice British indie rock band, a very 2020s pop version of indie rock band, please no.
The Smile, A Light For Attracting Attention– I mean, it’s a collaboration between British jazz group Sons of Kemet and Thom Yorke of Radiohead- it’s a wonder I found some songs I liked. Which I did! But too many of them background faded out of existence.
The Stroppies, Levity– This Australian indie pop band made up of members from multiple previous bands makes music redolent of the instrumental rock & lackadaisical vocals 80s alt and 90s/00s indie schools of rock. Notwithstanding the face that I could have been listening to this at any point in the past several decades, and it does tend towards sameness at points, there is something pleasant about it. But best of year pleasant?
They Hate Change, Finally, New– I really do appreciate how this Tampa Bay rap duo’s music is informed as much by post punk and electronic music as hip hop. And the high level of sophisticated social commentary they have going on. It was a little all too similar track to track to really work at album length though. Still, I’d like to keep an eye on them!
Thomas Dollbaum, Wellswood– New Orleans-by-way-of-Florida singer/songwriter Thomas Dollbaum delivers some solid Americana here, but it’s so in one range vocally and musically track to track that the rough and tumble lyrics get lost in the muted flow.
Train, AM Gold– I walked into this unsure. On the one hand, I like AM Gold as a musical area. On the other, Train, well, let’s just say when you have a vibrant and innovative local music scene and the band that makes it big from your area is something as bland as Train, it kind of sticks in your craw. Turns out this album does a decent job of channeling 70s AM Gold. But it’s still Train.
Van Morrison, What’s It Gonna Take?– This is, musically and vocally, the best extended COVID conspiracy rant I have ever heard. Shorter than his similar album from last year, but more ranty! But the song “Fear and Self Loathing in Las Vegas” is great, I’d recommend listening to it.
Warpaint, Radiate Like This– A little thick sensual vocals, a little melody, a little post-punk angularity and darkness. It’s not a bad combination, but it never rises above a certain track to track sameness.
And there you have it! May review in by the last day of June. I think we have a good shot at getting June out well before the end of July. Tune in to find out!
Let us boldly continue with our quest for the 22 best albums of 2022! For those joining us for the first time, or in need of a refresher, I’m listening to new releases each month, and then categorizing them into “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No”, with an eye toward eventually determining… The 22 Best Albums of 2022!
Yes, I’m combining reviews for two months again. I do hope to be caught back up to monthly installments at some point… In the meantime, you can find the previous review here:
And if you’re interested in previous outings of my quest to get caught up on newer music, you can check out the round-ups of my three blog series from last year reviewing the critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and 2020 , and scouring monthly new releases to choose the 21 best albums of 2021.
Got it? Good. Let’s get going! But first, a brief word about the three categories:
Yes– This is the albums that, upon first listen, I think could definitely be in running for best of the year. They still have to survive mortal combat with each other though!
Maybe– These albums have something to recommend them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m putting them in their own category, because I have found “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”.
No– These are not in the running. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad! Sometimes you end up here because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and inspired in some way, but not quite able to pull it off. Getting to yes ain’t easy!
With all that established, let’s see what was discovered in the 218 new releases from March and April that I listened to…
50 Foot Wave, Black Pearl– Full disclosure requires me to say that I love Kristin Hersh, and all her various projects over the years. And i have a particular fondness for 50 Foot Wave- There’s something to be said for the time-defying move of going blisteringly heavy decades into your career. This has everything I love about her, and this band- Snarling guitar rock, but a precision of timing and melody peeking through, and her nothing held-back vocals and evocative imagery. May I be doing this well 36 years after my initial release!
Aldous Harding, Warm Chris– Sometimes a classic 70s singer-songwriter feel, sometimes soul/R&B, sometimes sparkling with quirky traces of 80s-2000s alternative, more than a hint of Velvet Underground. Each song by this New Zealand singer-songwriter feels like it lasts longer than it does, and I mean this in a good way- the musical layers and melodic depths create space upon space inside these songs.
Alex Cameron, Oxy Music– A classic 80s synth sound, with some arch emotional storytelling in the lyrics (as hinted at by the punny album title). This Australian musician and singer-songwriter is best known for his solo career, a high-concept act in which he initially adopted the persona of a failed entertainer. This music lends itself to those acting skills.
Anitta, Versions of Me– This was a welcome surprise! At first I thought I might be in for another super-autotuned dance album. But this Brazilian singer, songwriter, actress, dancer, businesswoman and TV presenter (!) really brings it here- the beats get the booty moving, the grooves are catchy, and there’s a great deal of verve, personality, and point of view in the vocals and on the lyric side. It may not be the most profound thing every, but as great dance music goes- this is!
Anton Barbeau/Loud Family, What If It Works?– This collaboration between two idiosyncratic indie musicians starts off with a Rolling Stones cover that they make sound like The Jesus and March Chain, and the next is a song about making that song which sounds like Beatlesque neo-psychedelia, so that gives you some idea of the sensibility and talent on display here. Between the musical excellence, vocal snark, and lyrical cleverness, this is a delight the whole way through.
April March, In Cinerama– From the first jaunty guitar notes, swiftly joined by drums, horns, and her neo-swinging 60s vocals, this is a joy. At times carrying on in this 60s vein, at times sounding like international pop, at times shimmering with timeless harmonies, every track shines with unimpeachable excellence.
Astrel K, Flickering i– Kind of like if the Beatles (or maybe some of their later-day imitators a la XTC or Oasis) made an electronic album. And I mean this very positively! It is shimmering, beautiful, and surprisingly varied fun the whole way through. Astrel K is the solo project of Rhys Edwards (singer/guitarist of British band Ulrika Spacek), currently based in Stockholm, and how often do interesting musical excursions involve Scandinavia these days?
Bart Davenport, Episodes– Pop in a 60s and trippy mellow 70s songwriter vein, with more than a splash of 80s interpreters of the same (Robyn Hitchcock, the Smiths, XTC, etc.). This US Singer-songwriter has recorded in all kinds of modes. This one is freaking well done!
billy woods, Aethiopes– Dark menacing poetic flow backed by a jazz mix with discordant edges. The lyrics are heavy with history and spirituality without being heavy-handed, and the mix contains constant surprises. This New York hip-hop artist has a reputation as an outsider, and he proves it here in the best sense of the term.
Bladee & Ecco2K, Crest– Swedish rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer Bladee and British-Swedish singer, designer, model, director Ecco2K have made something pretty interesting here. High energy dance music, shimmering autotuned electronic, it’s like pop music on overdrive with just the right dash of experimental and avant garde.
Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, Topical Dancer– Belgian-Caribbean musician Adigery has made some weird, quirky, weird, international dance music that’s topical and polemical with a sense of humor. On the music side it’s light, fluid, and full of dynamic sound effects. The lyrical sentiments are a little too on the nose sometimes, but the presentation is so tongue in cheek you can tell it’s messing with you deliberately. This reminds me, variously, of MIA, my dear departed Cibo Matto, and the Talking Heads from their African rhythms era.
Damu the Fudgemunk/Raw Poetic, Laminated Skies– This pair of Washington D.C. producers/hip-hop artists has produced a collaboration with a dense poetic flow, an intriguing jazz-inflected musical mix supporting it, and more than a hint of the conscious side of 90s hip-hop. It’s full of positive energy and I like it!
Denzel Curry, Melt My Eyez See Your Future– This album is full of fresh and rich musical mix, various vocal styles, and flow that embraces some of the more conventional sides of song structure but is still hard-hitting. There’s depth on the lyrical side as well. This Florida-born rapper invokes hip-hop greats often along the way, and it’s clear he’s learned from them while fusing it into a sound of his own.
Diving Rings, Night Palace– This Athens GA-derived band, currently out of New York, has put together a shimmering dreamscape of songs. Vocal and musically the whole thing is suffused with rich gauzy melodies, backed by intelligent and sophisticated lyrics.
Eamon, No Matter the Season– This Staten Island hip-hop/R&B artist is bringing a big fat 70s soul sound here, and I am loving it! A period piece? Maybe. But a damn well done one!
Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Down Every Road– A modern revivalist of 60s R&B covers Merle Haggard. It’s conceptually intriguing, which is nice, but how it works in practice is the key. And in practice, it works insanely well! Besides being a fun boisterous listen the whole way through, it got me thinking about the cross-genre unity behind American musical forms. And amen!
Fontaines D.C., Skinty Fia– Their album A Hero’s Death was one of my leading contenders for best album in my 2020 review (it just got squeezed out!), so I was looking forward to this. And darned if it doesn’t deliver! You’ll hear the angular heavy sound of post-punk here, but also the surging power and pathos you might associate with U2 of yesteryear. The accents are thick, which helps with the feeling of authenticity leavening the seriousness, and the lyrics are literate and emotionally complex. This Dublin band is bringing the goods.
Frog Eyes, The Bees– With occasional psychedelic flourishes, the music is emotional and driving in its spareness. But it’s the lyrics and vocal presentation that are really something! There’s deliberate melodrama and weird wit aplenty in both that stays compelling the whole way through. This album from a band from the Isle of Wight almost feels like latter-day classic Roxy Music to me. And huzzah for that! Definitely my favorite Isle of Wight band.
Ibibio Sound Machine, Electricity– This London-based DJ/live music octet combines the sounds of West African music, funk and disco, post-punk, and electronic. What they’ve produced in this album is muscular, heavy, funky and groovy, and lead singer Eno Williams has a vocal and personality presence that powerfully pulls it together and pushes it along as well! This really shows the best of fertile cross-pollination that club music can bring about.
Jenny Hval, Classic Objects– The music is shimmering, sophisticated, and controlled. The same sense of beautiful but brittle is present in the vocals. And I mean this not as a criticism of either, in fact they’re the perfect platform for supporting the spell the intelligent lyrics weave. This is what happens when you get a Norwegian singer-songwriter who’s also a novelist. It reminds me of Laurie Anderson and the way her artistic sensibilities shape everything about the music, though musically and vocally Hval is more accessible. Accessible and philosophically artistic is not a bad combination!
Jon Spencer & the HITmakers, Spencer Gets It Lit– Jon Spencer has made gloriously raw blues-punk in various bands since the late 80s, and this album finds him in excellent form. It’s loud, it’s heavy, somewhat sleazy and sinister, pretty much everything you could hope rock still can be.
Kae Tempest, The Line is a Curve– The descriptor “UK poet, rapper, playwright, and novelist” could have gone a lot of different ways, but the way it’s gone here is pretty stunning. Her plainspoken vocal delivery, muted musical background, and tales of working-class life and deep interior feelings create an experience that lingers long after it’s done.
Lyrics Born, Mobile Homies: Season 1– I hear “Tokyo-born Bay Area rapper” and I’m favorably predisposed, so it’s so much the better that this COVID-born mix-tape is actually fresh and delightful! It’s composed of collaborations with friends interspersed with interviews he did with them for his podcast. The mix is surprising and unusual, beats and refrains catchy, and lyrics full of both humor and serious import.
Miranda Lambert, Palomino– I like Miranda Lambert’s version of country, and here she’s delivering muscular minor chords, sharp vocals, and smart and swagger-filled lyrics. The country is straight-up enough to give the pop depth, the pop hooky enough to keep it rolling, chock full of sly references to a range of American music, and there’s even a through story of sorts about a trip across the Southwest in search of- Herself? A good cowboy? American life? Her Marfa Tapes collaboration was one of my favorites of 2021, and here she is again showing contemporary country what it can still do if it just tries!
My Idea, Cry Mfer– Lily Konigsberg of Brooklyn band Palberta had her 2020 solo debut produced by fellow indie rocker Nate Amos of Water From Your Eyes. The two became friends, leading to this collaborative album between them. Both Palberta and a solo album from Konigsberg were high on my 2021 contenders list, and this album has a lot of the “why” for that on good display. Her pop rock instincts are impeccable, but while melodies proceed so sweetly, the lyrics are archly subversive, and the music is loaded with experimental touches and indie grit and verve. The whole ends up far exceeding its already excellent parts. I want more Lily!
Orville Peck, Bronco– Minor chords, echoey crooning vocals, a surf-music and rockabilly-influenced take on country. Sometimes so straight-up it’s almost on the edge of parody, but darned if it doesn’t work! Orville Peck is now my favorite South African country musician based in Canada who wears a fringed mask and never shows his face publicly.
Particle Kid, Time Capsule– This is extraordinary! For reference, Particle Kid is the band of Willie Nelson’s youngest child, Micah, who describes what he does as “experimental future-folk”. I think that’s not inaccurate, but it undersells the creative kaleidoscope on display here. You’ll find, alternately, experimental electronic, things that sound like they come from some strain or another of the 90s (grunge, shoegaze, melodic pop-rock), psychedelia, and more than the occasional moment that put me in mind of Neil Young in the 70s. Behind it, though, there’s some kind of unity of spirit and overarching structure that holds this all together. For an hour and 45 minutes!
Pastor Champion, I Just Want To Be a Good Man– Itinerant preacher Pastor Wylie Champion wandered California preaching and playing an electric guitar. David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop happened to come across a video of him playing in a church in Oakland, and, after reaching out, recorded a set of his live playing before his death in 2018. As an album origin story, this sounds amazing. The great news is that the spare, powerful, and raw electric gospel it contains lives up to the story.
Pictish Trail, Island Family– Fuzzy rock. Weird trippy rock. Philosophical rock. Pictish Trail is the pseudonym of Scottish musician Johnny Lynch, and his brand of electronic folk pulls you in. I’m occasionally a little unsure about the sameness of the groove throughout, but it remains compelling and often musically surprising.
PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project: The Demos– This is the raw demos of her 2016 album by the same name. PJ Harvey always makes one stand up and take note, and, as with other demo versions she’s released, there’s a stripped-down power and immediacy to these that enhances what were already powerful songs.
Ry Cooder/Taj Mahal, Get On Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee– Two later day blues greats, now elders in their own right, cover songs from 50s-60s folk blues powerhouses Terry-McGhee. The source material is great, the playing raucously gorgeous, and the vocals gloriously ragged and natural-feeling. There isn’t anything here not to love!
Sofi Tukker, Wet Tennis– Sexy, sometimes sinister, and spare dance music with clear vocals and surprising mix details from the New York-based dance duo of Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern. Hawley-Weld’s warm voice, and lyrics that paint emotionally evocative stories combine with the music to make the whole thing a cut above. Dance music will always be with us. May it always be this good!
The Linda Lindas, Growing Up– Energetic power-pop-punk from a girl group? I gotta love it. I gotta! In this case they’re also multi-cultural and tackling sexism and racism with wit and verve, so the love is multiplied.
Wednesday, Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ’Em Up– This Asheville North Carolina band is a delight! The whole thing reads as a country album played in the style of noise rock (or maybe the other way around?). As if to prove that point, this is a cover album paying tribute to their influences, ranging from straight-up country to Vic Chesnutt and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Wet Leg, Wet Leg– I got a 90s vibe from this Isle of Wight band with their lackadaisical vocal style, stop-and-start dynamics, and jarring guitar notes. It’s also often lyrically hilarious, packed with sexualized innuendo, and snark about band life and boys on the scene. Wet Leg is now my new favorite Isle of Wight band! Sorry Frog Eyes, it was a short reign for you.
Willie Nelson, A Beautiful Time– This isn’t always the freshest sounding (my 72nd studio album probably wouldn’t be either!), but it is like finely burnished metal. The music is authentic, the vocals are appropriately worn and weary, and it’s full of meditations on time, mortality, and gratitude for life lived. I hope I’m still producing anything nearly this good, in any field, as I’m closing in on 90.
Yumi Zouma, Present Tense– Some bright clear melodic pop, with layers of rich dark feeling vocally and musically. It’s not the most profound thing every, but this New Zealand band has made a really charming little album.
Astrid Øster Mortensen, Skærgårdslyd– Denmark-born, Sweden-based musician, who describes their work as “folk field recordings”. This 4-track production mixes vocal harmonies, sounds of nature, and spare synth sounds for an effect that is uncanny, but also weirdly exultant. It embodies the feelings of the turning of seasons. More experimental than I usually go, but I think this is a maybe!
Band of Horses, Things Are Great– This Seattle band knows its melodic rock hooks, and yearning lyrics and vocals. There was a hint of pre-fab to the sound, but darned if doesn’t work.
BÖRN, Drottningar Dauðans– Icelandic female metal! I’m conceptually sold going in. And from there, delightfully, it mostly works! The songs are, in a way, in the orchestral/ornamented side of metal, but delivered at such a blistering pace (9 songs in under a half hour) and with such vocal urgency that it comes off almost like punk. The only thing keeping it from “yes” is the lyrics being entirely in Icelandic, and the production being a tad too clean to really unleash the wildness here. Also of note: Their name means “Queens of Death”. If you’re not in love, I don’t understand why. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Camila Cabello, Familia– This may not be the most profound thing ever (and to be fair, she’s only in her mid-20s), but darned if this Cuban-American singer/songwriter’s mix of catchy dance pop, Cuban influences, and a flair for emotionally revealing lyrical twists doesn’t work!
Camp Cope, Running With the Hurricane– I think I may have to add Aussiess and Kiwis to Canadians and Scandinavians on my “potential saviors of rock” list. This Australian band is presenting some surging guitar rock. There are moments that musically remind me of, variously, U2, Joy Division, the Cure, and current indie rock hits. The vocals are strong enough to keep up with the music, but with a hint of vulnerable plainness when they slow down. It can lean a little to the formulaic, but they are making pretty damn good use of the formula.
Caracara, New Preoccupations– This kept being on the edge for me, so I guess it’s a maybe by definition. At its best moments, its atmospheric moody rock, darkly charging and surging guitars and yearning vocals are entrancing. At worst, it feels a little too pre-packaged in the 90s grunge-afterburn emotional cresting waves it affects, and that’s not a bad at worst. So, slightly against my better judgement, I find myself digging what this Philadelphia band is putting down.
Congotronics International, Where’s the one?– This is a supergroup uniting several members of the Congolese groups Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars as well as experimental rock artists Deerhoof, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Matt Mehlan (of Skeletons), and Juana Molina. I really enjoyed last year’s Kasai Allstars album, and appreciate the way Congolese music both derives from, and contributes back to, Western Hemisphere musical forms. Also, Deerhoof is one of my favorite contemporary bands. So I go in intrigued, and this well re-pays that interest. The Congolese poly-rhythms and the experimental bent from the collaborators fit together extremely well in ways both intriguing and fun. I have some length concerns (it comes in at over an hour), but this bears repeated listening.
Cowboy Junkies, Songs of the Recollection– An album of covers by the group that first came to (alternative) fame with their torch song take on alt country in the 80s. They have truly burnished into a bluesy, bruised power with age, and these are excellent covers- honoring the original, but bringing the band’s own take to them. It does tend a little toward sameness by the end, but it’s gorgeous along the way.
Dale Watson, Jukebox Fury– A modern master of good old-fashioned honky-tonk and the Bakersfield sound covers an array of pop, rock, and country gems from the 70s? I mean, of course I’m going to be a fool for this! It is, in a sense, twice not original, but also, it’s so straight-up natural feeling and well done.
Ditz, The Great Regression– Musically the heavy, bruising grunge-flavored post-punk of this Brighton band is really working for me. But the sometimes-atonal shouted vocals school of vocals is…problematic. Sometimes the vocals work well with the music though. I kept going back and forth, so I guess it is, by definition, a maybe.
DJ Travella, Mr Mixondo– As you know if you’ve been reading this regularly, being electronic and practically lyric-free, this was going to be a hard sell for me. But Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania DJ Travella’s mixes are so over the top hyper-energetic and inventive I have to say maybe. Score one for the Tanzania club scene!
Dopplereffekt, Neurotelepathy– This Detroit electronic music outfit has been active since the 90s, and they’ve apparently had many style shifts over that time. Here they’re hearkening back to a classic very computery futuristic electronic sound. That, and titles like “Epigenetic Modulation” and “Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation” should give you some idea what you’re in for here. Call me crazy but I think it works. Still hard to latch onto with almost no lyrics to speak of, but it’s a good example of how fun electronic can be in the right hands.
Ghost, Impera– Swedish metal? I’m preemptively in! And this is exuberantly delivered, it reminds me of British new wave metal in its clean bright musicianship. Still a little miffed at contemporary music for being mostly retreads of prior eras, but if it’s going to happen, let’s have some good ones.
Guided by Voices, Crystal Nuns Cathedral– Guided by Voices are always good, always different, and bizarrely prolific. This particular album seems to be drawing on metal, prog, and stadium rock for its influences. Metal chord progressions are a cheap way to get my attention. But darn if it isn’t effective! It does feel like it peters out a little toward the end, which is about my only reservation.
Haru Nemuri, Shunka Ryougen– Frenetic pop with an experimental edge and some outright excursions into noise pop from this Japanese singer, songwriter, and “poetry rapper”. A lot of it is in Japanese, which, to be sure, makes it harder to understand, but the feeling, the intelligence, and the attitude come through.
Joshua Hedley, Neon Blue– Hedley is hearkening back to some old-style Bakersfield/Outlaw country sounds and bless him for it! It occasionally sounds a little cliché or rote, but it is just as often energetic and charming.
Kurt Vile, (watch my moves)– The low-key melody, the burned-out wit, the slacker undertow here is a beautiful thing to behold. It was a little overlong at past an hour and without enough tone switches song to song, but musically, lyrically and vocally it was working for me. I’ve seen him described as a “dazed and confused update on roots rock” and I say, “Amen!”
PUP, The Unraveling of Puptheband– Snotty teen diy punk band? (Note one does not need to be a teen to be a snotty teen diy punk band.) Edgy provocateurs a la Jello Biafra? Hilarious conceptual artists pulling a fast one? All yes! The musical approach isn’t always the freshest (though it’s good clean noise) and I’m not totally convinced the concept album frame about the band trying to turn itself into a corporation totally comes together, but it does warm the heart!
Romero, Turn It On!– Starting full-out rocking from the get-go is a good way to get me! As is a female-led band, and one with good knowledge of how to work its guitar chord changes. This Australian band reminds me a little of Blondie and the Go-Gos in their sound, and if it’s not the most original thing ever (my one hesitation) it is a very well-done version of it.
Rosalia, Motomami– Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s third album has been generating a lot of buzz, and deservedly so. In some respects, it’s not an unusual 2020’s soul/dance album with its mix of ballads, dance music, and hip-hop, but every track delivers surprising moments, and it’s bristling with quirky energy and personality. It’s also a musical kaleidoscope, which can be dazzling, but works against coherence. This, the more conventional moments, and the fact that it’s largely in Spanish have me hedging, but the general excellence pulls me forward…
SAVAK, Human Error/Human Delight– This prolific indie rock supergroup starts off with a song called “No Blues No Jazz” so you may have some idea where they’re coming from. And they then proceed blisteringly through bell-ringing rock that pulls out all the tricks of the instrument-based alt-80s and indie rock 90s-00s. It may not all be the freshest sound ever, but it gets the blood moving.
The Crystal Method, The Trip Out– Holy 90s flashback! The Crystal Method does a school of electronic I quite like, and I can understand why listening to this- it’s muscular, and also hews in some ways to “normal” song structure, while still having the driving energy and sci-fi flourishes of techno. Is it a little dated-sounding? Maybe. But it also kept my head bouncing the whole time. Maybe!
The High Strung, HannaH– This Detroit band recorded these songs off the cuff in 2002 during downtime while making another album. Some really good 60s-sounding pop/psychedelia as interpreted through 80s/90s guitar-fuzzed alt rock. Melody, vocals, instrumentation are all so bright! Is it a little old? Yes. Is it a profoundly new sound? No, not even at the time. But so well done, especially for being composed on the fly just to fill time!
Tomberlin, i don’t know who needs to hear this…– This American folk musician and singer-songwriter based in Louisville, Kentucky is never not affecting, but I do wonder if it’s all too of a tone to work at its 50-minute length. But the depth and power behind the quietude of her songs is inarguable.
Toro y Moi, Mahal– Wikipedia tells me “Chaz Bundick, known professionally as Toro y Moi, is an American singer, songwriter, record producer, and graphic designer. He is often recognized as a spearhead of the chillwave genre in the 2010s”. I’m telling you that this is a fascinating pastiche of swirls and styles of electronic music, deadpan lyrics about life, and intriguing sound effects. It’s not a totally easy listen, but it’s often a fun one, and always an interesting one.
U.S. Highball, A Parkhead Cross of the Mind– Glasgow-based two-piece band with a bright and cheery feeling redolent of 60s pop, pub rock, and the jangly side of alt 80s. It feels a little same as it goes on, but it’s a very pleasant ride along the way!
Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart– I really though Vince Staples was a country guy, but he is most decidedly a hip-hop guy. Great classic sounding R&B mix, an interesting almost lackadaisical vocal style, and surprising storytelling and sound effect flourishes. That’s all on the plus side, it does delve into autotune a little too often, and is kind of thematically conventional. But I never turned it off, and it’s lingering…
Widowspeak, The Jacket– Dreamy yearning vocals against a shimmering guitar wall with just the right edge of feedback. Is it that different from, say, Mazzy Star? No. Does it still work on me like a sucker? Yes!
Wolfgang Flur, Magazine 1– Some very old-style electronica, hearkening to the 70s Kraftwerk school. But wait, that’s no accident! Flur was a member of the group from 1973-1987. A little dated sounding, but the amount of spontaneity, exuberance and humor he brings to it really sparkles.
Alex G, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)– The ambient pieces within eventually tipped it away from working for me, but this was closer than any experimental sometimes deliberately grating film score has a right to come to being a workable album!
Axel Boman, Luz/Quest for Fire– This is a smart and interesting electronic music mix, but a little too abstract and fade into background to really work as an album.
Barrie, Barbara– Mellow indie rock on the border of acoustic and electronic. It’s not bad, and there are moments where it really kicks in, but mostly it is kind of all the same, both internally and compared to other albums like this.
Ben Marc, Glass Effect– Producer and multi-instrumentalist at the leading edge of the UK jazz scene, and indeed it is too jazzy and low key electronic for me, although there are spoken word portions I quite liked.
Benny the Butcher, Tana Talk 4– I do like Benny, and there’s some great lyrical content here, but the flow and mix is often a little too muted to have it work for the full length of the album.
Bloc Party, Alpha Games– 00s flashback! Bloc party is still in pretty good shape in their first studio album in 6 years. I’m not hearing a lot that’s especially new or different, but we could do lots worse.
Blue States, World Contact Day– If you name your album after a line from a Carpenters song about alien contact, I’m listening. Alas, it’s good shimmery shoegaze, but doesn’t really stand out track to track.
Bodega, Broken Equipment– It’s got an off-kilter post-punk/new wave feel, and a pounding vocal assault. The musical side feels pretty fresh, but the lack of change in vocal tone started to drag it down after a while.
Bonnie Raitt, Just Like That…– Look, Bonnie Raitt isn’t going to make a bad album. So, this isn’t bad, but it is too glossily produced, and not rising enough above her comfortable middle.
Brad Mehldau, Jacob’s Ladder– Some very interesting electronic music here, sometimes quite lively and interesting, but too often tending toward lulled into over-quiet or a little too experimental to be listenable.
Calexico, El Mirador– I do dig the space these indie rock veterans inhabit, with its crossing of country and Latin American. And this is a solid example of it, but I don’t know that it rises above that.
Charli XCX, Crash– Her 2020 album how I’m feeling now made my top 20 list for that year, so I was looking forward to this. And it is good dance music, and good dance music is good, but it did seem a little too all in one vein as it wore on. Still, you wouldn’t mind having this playing in the club, or in your car on the way there.
Chris Janson, All In– As pop country goes, this isn’t a bad version. It still feels rather pre-fab, but is delivered with some genuine exuberance. There is a great song about doing a crime (revenge for a cheating heart) and disposing of the body in the Mississippi- if there had been more of that kind of storytelling throughout, it might have won me over.
Christian Lee Hutson, Quitters– A very nice, densely lyrical acoustic set, but it does blend into sameness after a while.
Chrome Canyon, Director– This emulation of 80s synth soundtracks was just a little too on the low key/ambient side of electronic for me. How did they trick me into listening to this? The 80s. It was the 80s.
Claire Rousay, sometimes i feel like i have no friends– Okay, this is a single 28-minute track album, and I knew going in that a lot of it was composed of ambient background sounds. But the title and the idea of what the artist was trying to accomplish had me hooked. And there is something genuinely engaging, and haunting, about her the juxtaposition of her philosophical musings on friendship with the background outdoor sounds. But with the big “dead zones” that are purely background sounds, I don’t know that it would stand up to repeated listening. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
CMAT, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead– Dublin artist Ciara Mary Alice Thompson has a great presence, and I really appreciate her countrified take on dance music. However, the musical side of it does start to all blend together before too long.
Colin Hay, Now and the Evermore– I did love Men at Work in the 80s, and remain a fan of their smart but peppy school of rock. Hay is in good form here with contemplative melancholy vocals, but it has the over-produced sound of 80s afterburn.
Confidence Man, Tilt– As fun high-energy dance mixes go, this isn’t a bad one! It is a little musically simple, though. And is it a “will remember the album in a year and still want to listen to it” album?
Dana Gavanski, When it Comes– I don’t mind twee and dreamy, but this was a little too twee and dreamy in too low-key a vein for the most part. There were edgier more angular moments that were interesting.
Daniel Rossen, You Belong There– A nice and torchy set of songs. But too mellow and same track to track to stand out and work at length.
David West, Jolly in the Bush– David West is a very talented musical chameleon. on this release, he’s doing jangly slightly anguished white boy rock that would have been very home on alt radio in the 80s or 90s. It’s a fine example of what it is, but not sure there’s something new or “above and beyond” enough here to really stand out. Sorry Cousin David!
Dedicated Men of Zion, The Devil Don’t Like It– This album by a North Carolina gospel group mines 70s funk and soul sounds for their take on gospel classics. It never sounds, in that sense, fresh and original. It does sound soulful, though, and is well-done, if a little smooth for its own good.
Deer Scout, Woodpecker– A sometimes quirky acoustic lo-fi outing from the Brooklyn group by way of Philly. It has an inherent charm that carried me through quite a ways, but eventually succumbs to its low energy level and sameness.
Destroyer, Labyrinthitis– Dan Bejar’s Canadian rock band Destroyer gets up to all kinds of things, and here is getting up to an 80s alt synth overdrive- you’ll hear hints throughout of the poppier side of synthpop, of New Order, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, maybe the Church and Bauhaus too. I would have LOVED this in 1986! I still really like it, but I think it’s a little too museum piece to totally work.
Devil Master, Ecstasies of Never Ending Night– I like the production note that it was recorded live to analog tape, but mostly this metal was a little too on the orchestral/technical side for me.
Dianne Coffee, With People– This project of Foxygen’s Shaun Fleming takes its notes both from synth pop and the mellow gold of 70s radio. The mix is always pleasant, and occasionally it’s both quirky and super catchy. If there had been more of those moments, it might have made it for me, but equally often it’s a little too mellow fuzzed-out.
Diplo, Diplo– Some exemplar half mellow half energy 2020’s autotune dance pop. Please bury it in a deep, deep hole.
Duke Robillard, They Call It Rhythm and Blues– Former Fabulous Thunderbird Robillard is a living channeler of classic rock and blues forms, and this is very much a conscious attempt to evoke the original R&B sound of the 50s and 60s. At its best it sounds spontaneously in that vein, but sometimes more like a too slick recreation.
Duster, Together– Slowcore low-fi making a beautiful gauzy noise with just the right touch of dark and heavy. It really is giving me a 90s feeling, and I’m tempted, but I think ultimately is too all in one vein track to track.
Duwap Kaine, A Dogg’s Influence– Some fun and verve here in this hip-hop artist making a mixtape catering to his influences, but wayyyy toooo muccchhhhh autotuneeeeeeee.(Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Nightclub Daydreaming– I’m pretty sure that Jim Morrison faked his death, and that this album is by the elder Morrison. Or maybe it’s just the sometimes Buahausian moody crooning that’s getting to me, because it gets weirder and more diverse from there, and I am informed it’s a Baltimore experimental duo. Really good, but the vein is too similar track to track and too familiar in ways to really make the album come together.
Eiko Ishibashi, For McCoy– “Japanese experimental artist records album inspired by her favorite character from Law & Order” is a great concept. It ends up, perhaps not surprisingly, being a little too abstract.
El Ten Eleven, New Year’s Eve– This Los Angeles duo is kicking out something somewhere between rock instrumental and electronic. It’s full of sinuous grooves and bass. All instrumental, and a little same track to track, so I’m not sure it works for me as an album, but there is some worthy work here!
Emily Wells, Regards to the End– It’s a little Kate Bushian, a little Florence and the Machinian, but too ethereal for me to really settle into it. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Erasers, Constant Connection– It’s got a very chilly 80s synth feeling, not badly done as such, but not doing a lot more than that either.
Father John Misty, Chloë and the Next 20th Century– This was a very interesting set of songs from the good Father (aka singer-songwriter Joshua Michael Tillman). Driven by a high concept of a cycle of stories on love lost in the wilds of Southern California and often deliberately going for a campy and glitzy vein, they really evoked the feeling of standards and show tunes. The high concept and lyrical storytelling definitely catch one’s attention, but it felt to me like the musical side of it sometimes deflated this. I can’t say it totally came together as something that worked, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for ambitious messes!
Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses: Phantom Limb– A series of outtakes and covers from the preparation of their album Head of Roses. It’s good material, but a little too all in one mellow acoustic vein to stand out.
Fly Anakin, Frank– You know with the artist’s name that this Star Wars fan is going to try to like the album. And I do like it! There’s pleasing flow, smooth musical mixing, clever and positive rhymes. But I don’t know that I hear anything dynamic or varied or impactful enough here to take it to “top 10% of things I’ll listen to” territory.
Frontperson, Parade– This Vancouver group’s work is redolent with synth sounds and romantic melody, but it all feels a bit too chilly to fully engage.
Fucked Up, Do All Words Can Do– Each of these songs feels like it has two rock songs worth of energy shoved into it! After a while it’s too the same track to track, but this Canadian hardcore band is scrappy!
Future, I Never Liked You– Veryyyyyy autotuneddddd hip-hoppppppp.
Gabriel Kahamne, Magnificent Bird– It’s got good concept going for it- chronicling the artist’s year off of the whole internet. And the lyrics are dizzyingly literate and clever, with nuanced music backing it. Ultimately, though, the folk electronic musical vein is too low key and similar track to track to really sustain it at album length.
George is Lord, My Sweet George– As you might guess from the album/band name, this is a bunch of George Harrison enthusiasts. While I love covers, I’m leery of cover bands. That being said, these are really charming renditions of a set of Harrison Beatles and solo songs. Some of them a little too straight up, but some of them taking new approaches to the songs. It’s not best of year territory, but if you’re feeling the Harrison homage, you could do worse!
Ghost Power, Ghost Power– This instrumental electronic pop project of Stereolab’s Tim Gane and Dymaxion’s Jeremy Novak was very pleasing, especially early on as the high-energy and sci-fi sounds really hit. After a while it started to get too often in an orchestral/muzak vein.
Good Looks, Bummer Year– This is a solid alt country sound, on the minor chord side. Well played, strong emotion in the vocals, enough rock/pop hooks to work, but it doesn’t really rise above the pack of similar sounding bands/albums.
Guerilla Toss, Famously Alive– Gauzy dance electronic, on the shoegazy side of rock. It’s fun and energetic, but all feels a little too amorphous to coalesce properly as an album.
Harvey Sutherland, Boy– This electronic music album had its moments, but was mostly too much in elevator muzak jazz territory.
Hatchie, Giving the World Away– There are some individual songs here that catch on with their mix of 90s-sounding power pop and dance music. On balance not often enough to cohere as an album, but I would keep my eye on her!
HEALTH, DISCO4 :: Pt. II– Interesting, sometimes grating, electronic music. It has verve, but I don’t know that it adds up to a durable lasting album.
High Pulp, Pursuit of Ends– It’s pretty lively, it’s good in its way, it’s instrumental jazz, and, eh.
Hinako Omori, A Journey…– Sometimes an album by a Japanese artist inspired by forest bathing sounds interesting in theory, but in practice is too abstract and almost-ambient to work at length.
Hoodoo Gurus, Chariot of the Gods– I saw the Hoodoo Gurus when they opened for the Bangles during their 1986 tour. I also read Chariots of the Gods and related books devotedly as a kid. Possibly, both factors are neither here nor there. It turns out that the Hoodoo Gurus remain as solid a band as they were then, straddling the line between pub rock and alt. It turns out that Chariots of the Gods was almost entirely bullshit. In any case, the album is solid but not outstanding, and ancient alien contact is an idea awaiting evidence, but not inherently absurd.
Hook, From, Hook– I don’t feel like it ultimately worked in terms of being sustainable, but this electronic music-flavored hip hop with a snarky alt punk attitude was interesting. Kudos to experimenters! (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Horace Andy, Midnight Rocker– One of the last of the old school Reggae greats, and he’s showing up in good, if rather mellow form here. It doesn’t quite come together or stand out as an album, but is full of some fine sounds.
Hygiene, Drug Church– Hardcore band from Albany with more than a hint of grunge feel. I was down with this musically, but it did end up being a little too same track to track musically and vocally after a while.
Isik Kural, In February– It’s nice and chimey and strummy and mellow and has some interesting sound effects. All very pleasant, but I don’t know that it leaves a lasting impression.
Jack White, Fear of the Dawn– I don’t know that Jack White could make bad music if he tried. What he can do, as he did sometimes with the White Stripes, is make an album where his thematic conceits and musical experimentation don’t quite come together as a whole. Packed with good stuff, and a half dozen directions that could have succeeded, but the massed weight of the zig zag keeps it from coming together. Still, if you’re a fan of his (and if you aren’t, why not?!?!) you won’t mind spending some time with it.
Jake Xerxes Fussell, Good and Green Again– Some really pretty good acoustic folk, but it veers a little too much into musical and vocal sameness after a while.
Jane Inc, Faster Than I Can Take– One might call this indie dance music? It’s fairly thin and unremarkable at what it does, though.
Japanese Television, Space Fruit Vineyard– This instrumental surf album with an electronic music slant is good clean fun, but it doesn’t end up going a lot beyond that.
Jason Aldean, Georgia– As pop country goes, this isn’t a bad version, in fact is taking the whole thing pretty seriously and injecting some unusual touches, but it’s still subject to the pre-fab pro-forma feeling of the genre.
Jeanines, Don’t Wait for a Sign– Pop-rock girl groups are my happy place, and if they can pump out songs less than two minutes long on average, I love that too! So, really liking this, but the production does sound a little flat or thin somehow. It’s almost there.
Jensen McRae, Are You Happy Now?– The best parts of this are very affecting and idiosyncratic. Other parts are too slickly produced and lose the directness and even harrowing vulnerability that makes the best tracks work, and all the pieces don’t quite fit together. Even if these fifteen tracks don’t quite come together as an album in total, though, there is gold in there (check out, for example, “Wolves” or “White Boy”). This 24-year-old bears watching!
Jeremy Ivey, Invisible Pictures– Classic 70s rock with a psychedelic/Beatles twist. Well done but feels a little too museum/prefab. May have something to do with musical energy level not selling it.
Jerry Paper, Free Time– I appreciated the eclecticism and sense of humor behind this, but the sound too often verged toward the lounge/easy listening side of the road for me to really engage.
Jewel, Freewheelin’ Woman– I was/am a big fan of Jewel’s first three albums, so I went in to this curious. She’s in pretty good form here, mostly coming from a country direction, but with some jazz, pop, and dance highlights. It doesn’t quite get a lot beyond “good” to what I know can be her “great” though.
Joe Satriani, The Elephants of Mars– If you want an instrumental album of well-played ornate guitar rock to lay back and groove to, this is for you!
Jorge Dexler, Tinta y Tiempo– As pop from Uruguayan artists goes, this is my favorite! It has a nice eclecticism of styles, but the language and occasional detours into worldbeat easy listening keeps it totally from clicking for me.
Joy Guidry, Radical Acceptance– I really like what this album is doing in terms of tackling body, gender, and sexuality acceptance, and the experimental approach it takes with spoken word and music. Ironically, the problem is too much music, too often in ambient or jazz veins, and not enough word! (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Jwords, Self-Connection– It’s an unusual synth-inflected hip-hop mix, but a little too low key to totally work. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Kaina, It Was a Home– A vocally nice mellow sunny soul-flavored album. But it doesn’t rise above the track-to-track mellow groove often enough to stand out.
Kathryn Joseph, For You Who Are the Wronged– Scottish singer-songwriter’s album is vocally beautiful, but all in one vein and musically a little too mellow to click in.
Kehlani, Blue Water Road– There is considerable merit to this singer/songwriter’s R&B album, but it dips too often into autotune musically and vocally.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Omnium Gatherum– I do like me some King Gizzard, and of course their whole point with them is experimental range and being unafraid to take a deep dive into flights of lunacy. That given, opening with an 18-minute psyche jam piece is a bold move, but darned if it doesn’t kind of work. Many highs and surprises, but also many lulls, so things do feel a little unfocused here, though, which is hard to keep up for an hour and twenty. Still, salute to the ambitious chance takers!
Koffee, Gifted– I really enjoyed a lot about this young Jamaican singer/rapper/deejay’s album. On the best tracks her vocals are strong and bare and there’s a spareness to the backing beats and musical samples that ends up imparting a lot of power. It ended up veering too often into autotune though, bleeding this power.
Koloah, Serenity– Its heart is in the right place, being a benefit for Ukraine recorded by a Ukrainian DJ in transit. The ambient approach of the music just doesn’t land with me, though.
Leon Vynehall, Fabric Presente Leon Vynehall– British artist and producer who produces some fine experimental club/electronic music. But at a run length of almost 80 minutes, well…
Let’s Eat Grandma, Two Ribbons– This is really the sweetest thing- an album of love songs toward one’s best friend, from two childhood friends. It’s beautiful, conceptually and musically, but does fuzz too much into a track-to-track sameness to continuously work at album length.
Letting Up Despite Great Faults, IV– It’s mellow, it’s shimmery, it’s synthy. Meh.
Lightning in a Twilight Hour, Overwintering– It’s chimey and moody and mellow with a sometimes-electric end, but I’m not sure it leaves enough of an impression.
Lola Kirke, Lady For Sale– When this pop-country outing leans more toward country, and embraces her funnier impulses, it’s gold. When it leans more to pop, and is more conventional, it’s okay. So, I wish there had been more of the former, but I will keep an eye on her!
Loop, Sonancy– Spacy, driving, fuzzy distorted music from this British band that dates back to the 80s. It has some energy, but without lyrics and given the sameness track-to-track, it’s not compelling at album length.
Lucius, Second Nature– Their euro disco-revival sound is really pretty nice for a while, but it fades into sameness eventually.
Luna Li, Duality– This Toronto multi-instrumentalist is a lovely vocalist and talented musician. Things here are in an orchestral/dreamy pop vein, but it all blends together in a way in fails to grab me as an album. She is more than worth keeping an eye on, though!
Machine Gun Kelly, Mainstream Sellout– Let me see if I got this right: White rapper from Cleveland in the midst of becoming pop punk. It is very 2000s pop-punk, complete with production from a Blink-182 alum. And it is a well-done example of that, but not a terribly original or standout one.
Maren Morris, Humble Quest– There are some moments here that transcend nice pop country (with a strong tilt toward the pop end of that equation) to something more authentic and dynamic feeling. In the end, though, not enough.
Maylee Todd, Maloo– I do appreciate the archly intelligent lyrics, and the quirky sound effects that populate her virtual reality-inspired album, but it ends up being all too one tone musically and vocally.
Melody’s Echo Chamber, Emotional Eternal– Some fine shimmery billowy pop, but a little too heliumated, and mostly too same.
Meshuggah, Immutable– Orchestral rock with screamy death voice vocals. Not a badly done version of it, but, eh…
Midlake, For the Sake of Bethel Woods– Moody vocals and music that weave a spell heavy on trippy hazy 70s flower power and prog rock, and not bad, but in the end it’s a little too high on production and low on feeling of vitality.
Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs, External Combustion– Dirty bar rock with strong traces of country and southern rock. It more than occasionally reminds me of Tom Petty. This is an intersection I have a lot of love for, but something about it feels a little pre-fab to me, not fully “there”. It’s a subtle, ghostly, difference, but what to do?
Mindi Abair, Forever– Tinged by country, redolent with a heartland rock feeling, bluesy and brassy. Saxophonist, vocalist, author Mindi Abair definitely has the chops. Eventually it got to be a little too smooth jazz for me, just lacking a raw and authentic spark that would have set it apart.
Munya, Voyage to Mars– Some dreamy shimmery pop from the Quebec-based Josie Boivin. It doesn’t stand out a lot at album length, but it is very well done, with the cover of the Smashing Pumpkins “Tonight, Tonight” being a special stand-out.
Nilüfer Yanya, Painless– Sophisticated international pop of the borderline between dance and rock variety. It’s not bad, at all, but it never really stands out.
North Mississippi Allstars, Set Sail– The slightly countrified bluesy vein it starts off in really works for me, but then it gets more indistinct, and too polished later.
Oceanator, Nothings Ever Fine– This winning mix of guitar-crunching angst and shades of 80s rock was headed straight for “yes” until it ended with two long down-tempo songs in a row.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Paint This Town– I do like me a Medicine Show, and Old Crow is one of my favorite kinds of Medicine Show. That being said, a lot of this ends up feeling a pinch rote and aiming for the middle, only occasionally opening up to the timeless mythic and utterly sincere space that they can reach. This may be because only one original member is left, and he’s gone for a more muscular musical sound. It’s not bad, but it’s not best.
Omar Apollo, Ivory– At times I wasn’t sure if this wanted to be an emo album, but I think it mostly wanted to be an autotuned 2020s soul album. I did not want it to be this combination of things.
Organ Tapes, Chang Zhe Na Wu Ren Wen Jin De Ge Yao– Church organ-influenced electronic underground music? I’m intrigued enough to listen! And it is an interesting sound, though I think it doesn’t sustain at album length as it gets both too experimental and too fuzzy/blurry.
Oso Oso, Sore Thumb– Long Beach indie rocker sets a certain expectation for me, then I feel confounded that it’s Long beach, NY, which apparently is a place. That being said, this guitar-led, mellow, feeling heavy music could have come from California. And is pretty good, but descends into a kind of sameness after a while.
Papercuts, Past Life Regression– This is a pretty good example of dreamy moody fuzzed-out pop, but it feels a little too same the whole way through to really catch on as an album.
Pillow Queens, Leave the Light On– I do like an all-female band, and they have a heavy but dreamy sound that is working for them. It gets to be too the same track to track, though, and somehow there’s some kind of spark missing.
Placebo, Never Let Me Go– This wouldn’t sound out of place as a late 90s/early 00s grunge afterburn with a strong dose of music from the Radiohead/Coldplay side of the fence. It’s not bad, but it does all sound curiously dated.
PLOSIVS, PLOSIVS– Punk/Hardcore supergroup composed of members from various bands in the, if not underground, at least less “mainstream” part of the 90s/00s scene. There are moments the separate pieces gel together into something explosive and fresh, but others are more kind of 00s pop punk blah.
Pusha T, It’s Almost Dry– His 2018 album Daytona was one of my favorites from my 2010s review, so I was interested going in to this. Smoothness of flow, dynamic musical mix, and lyrics alternately full of humor and surly menace. Pharrel and Kanye both had a hand in production, which is to the positive. But it doesn’t quite feel coherent, has a weak ending, and leans too heavily on his “greatest hits”. Best moments are great, but overall, not quite…
Rammstein, Zeit– This is really pretty good if you’re looking for something in a neo-cabaret goth entirely in German vein. If you’re not…
Raum, Daughter– This sounded intriguing in theory, but in practice it ambiented out to infinity. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
RealYungPhil, Dr. Philvinci– Not without merit and charm, but the autotune, it is too much! (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Unlimited Love– There are a lot of things going right here- the inherent excellence of the band, the return of all the classic lineup, having Rick Rubin guide the production. But there’s also the challenge of the length- closing in on 80 minutes- the pacing of slower numbers, and the mélange of styles. I feel like there is an excellent version of this album in there at half the length, and the best moments are thrilling. The others are “merely” late Red Hot Chili Peppers good, which is to say pretty darn good.
Redveil, Learn 2 Swim– There’s some charm here, and sophistication to the musical mix and an organizing theme but the autotune, it is too much!
Renata Zeiguer, Picnic in the Dark– Brooklynite songwriter relocated to the Catskills. And this almost worked for me. Every other song did something musically surprising or even amazing within its overall framework that sold me. Then every other every other track was too lulled into the overarching dreamy magical lounge sound. Which, although charming, tended to shimmer into indistinct. I’m more than intrigued enough to keep an eye on her going forward though!
Rex Orange County, Who Cares?– I mean, I’m not sure where an English musician gets off talking about Orange County, but someone will come back at me and say they have counties in the UK too. Fine. It’s good 2020’s soul-pop, part symphony and part hip hop. It doesn’t really get beyond that, though.
Richie Hawtin/Chilly Gonzales/Plastikman, Consumed in Key– Occasional moments of higher energy, but mostly low key to the point of somnolence.
Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, Mercy Me– As nice fairly relaxed contemporary blues goes, this is pretty good, but it doesn’t feel especially fresh, vivid, or stand out.
Royksopp, Profound Mysteries– Norwegian electronic music powerhouse Royksopp here delivers something subdued and multi-layered. It was interesting, but it’s generally a little too in an abstract and quiet vein to really stick for me.
S. Carey, Break Me Open– This is by a member of Bon Iver, so the sound isn’t really a surprise- dreamy mellow neo-folk indie rock. It’s nice. But does it sound different from or better than all the other dreamy mellow neo-folk indie rock out there?
Sault, Air– UK music collective Sault is excellent, and made some of my top pick albums of 2020 and a near top for 2021. This particular experiment with choral, orchestral and new age elements, however… It’s not badly done, but it doesn’t have the hooks their work usually does.
Scott Hardware, Ballad of a Tryhard– It’s mellow vocally and musically and it mellows along from mellow track to mellow track, and everything is very mellow.
Seabear, In Another Life– This was very close! Riding the edge of affecting melodious indie rock and being just a little too low energy and same track to track.
Seratones, Love & Algorhythms– The Seratones are a Soul band from new Orleans who’s stock in trade is wide experimentation, so much so that they can sound completely different from album to album. This one has a strong 70s dance music direction, and, while it’s good slinky fun, doesn’t really work for me as an album, as it all tends to blend together. Not unlike a night on the dancefloor!
Shane Parish, Liverpool– All-instrumental guitar thematically inspired by the comings and goings of goings on in the port of Liverpool, very interesting.
Silvana Estrada, Marchita– There is something very affecting about what this Mexican singer-songwriter is doing. The language barrier kept me from fully engaging, as did a kind of sameness to its sonic explorations of Latin American folk, but her voice is gorgeous. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)
Soul Glow, Diaspora Problems– Am I now too old for non-stop shouting noise rock? It’s a frightening thought, but it may be true. It’s actually the shouting that gets to me, and not the music, I think. There’s a lot of verve and humor here, but, well, 40 minutes nonstop of this sound…
Spiritualized, Everything was Beautiful– Spiritualized doing their shoegaze thing, and doing it very well, but is it better than their 90s version of doing it?
Stabbing Westward, Chasing Ghosts– This is from the echoey electronic anthem school of metal. It’s a good example of it but doesn’t necessarily rise above.
Stromae, Multitude– Belgian singer-songwriter, rapper and musician. French pop, electronic music, hip-hop. It’s musically unusual and really pretty good, but also entirely in French, which prevents me from fully-connecting.
Sugaray Rayford, In Too Deep– It started off with a fat 70s soul sound, but the freshness of that began to fade and it began to sound too “by rote” as it went on.
Suki Waterhouse, I Can’t Let Go– A smoky singer and songwriter, not unlike a Lana Del Rey, and not without merit, but this doesn’t rise above.
Syd, Broken Heart’s Club– Bright neo-dancey pop from this LA singer-songwriter. She can get quite experimental and challenging, but what’s here mostly goes for a more straightforward vein.
Tahiti 80, Here With You– French indie pop band who have been active since the 90s. This has a neo-disco feel to it that isn’t uncommon among euro-indie bands (heck, many American ones too!). It’s good clean fun, but not sure it’s rising above that.
Tess Roby, Ideas of Space– Some bright and interesting dance-oriented pop, but it doesn’t rise a lot beyond that. Tess has considerable depths as a person and as an experimental musician, but this is mostly aimed at a fairly conventional pop space.
The Boo Radleys, Keep on With Falling– Shoegaze/Britpop pioneers from the 90s. It’s pretty pitch perfect for the sunny shimmery space it’s going for, but it does feel a little dated and out of time. Being the best of a whole year is a tricky business…
The Districts, Great American Painting– This is some fine indie rock, but it doesn’t often enough reach for the something more dynamic or unusual it would take to stand out from many similar artist.
The Monochrome Set, Allhallowtide– English post-punk/new wave band who have been kicking around since the late 70s. That’s what they sound like, and they’re really good at it. But it sounds a little dated and like many other bands that sound like this. One the other hand, if there’s a Bowie/Roxy Music-inspired somewhat Echo and the Bunnymen space in your heart that needs filling, this might do it.
The Regrettes, Further Joy– This was an almost! Dance music and romantic ballads but carried a step above by frontwoman Lydia Night’s presence, vulnerability and wit. I subsequently read that they’re a punk band, and maybe that’s why they’re bringing something above and beyond to the more dance/pop direction this album was in.
The Waterboys, All Souls Hill– The 80s “Big Music” sound the Waterboys are known for (a la U2, Big Country, Simple Minds, etc.) is on fine display here. A fan of theirs, or of that sound, won’t go awry listening to this, but it does feel a little frozen in time/formula to be a “best of” this year.
The Weather Station, How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars– The last time I tried to like a Weather Station album I ended up in the same place- lyrically sophisticated, music and vocals both very solid, but so muted and low key and same track to track that it was difficult to get my hooks in to the album.
Thomas Rhett, Where We Started– As contemporary pop country goes, it’s fine, even has playful musical inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel vital or energized beyond its packaging very often.
Tran Uy Duc, Came– This is some interesting experimental electronic music, but it’s a little too on the “hard to listen to” edge of grating to make it at album length.
Trey Anastasio, Mercy– I went in pre-disposed to be hostile out of a residual 80s punk/90s alt resentment toward jam bands and their dark progeny. In fact, it was quite engaging musically, and vocally simple in a way that really let the complex lyrics shine through. It wasn’t until near the very end that the track-to-track mellow grove finally pushed me over from “maybe” to “no”.
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Lifted– New Orleans trombone and trumpet player Andrews has put out a boisterous jazz-funk album, redolent with New Orleans musical influences. It sometimes felt a little too slickly packaged, but no denying it was fun!
Undeath, It’s Time…To Rise From the Grave– I mean, between the band name, the album name, and the fact that they hail from my wife’s hometown of Rochester, NY, how could I not give it a try? Musically, I appreciate the non-stop metal assault, but the doom metal demon growl vocals are just so rarely a good idea these days.
Van Chamberlain, In The Sun– It’s solid instrumental rock, a little dreamy and in good control of its chord changes, but ultimately a little too hazy all the same.
Various Artists, Black Lives: From Generation to Generation– This is what it sounds like, a tribute to black music from musicians mining several generations of styles- African music, hip-hop, jazz, and soul all make an appearance. Some of the results are exquisite, but at an hour and forty-one minutes run-time, it gets hard to sustain in whole.
Vein.FM, This World Is Going to Ruin You– On the musical side, I like the stuttering distorted metal going on here. The purely screamo vocals, though, kept a single lyric from getting through.
Wallows, Tell Me That It’s Over– This Los Angeles band makes good, poppy, bright music. We could do A LOT worse, but I think it’s not substantive or different enough to linger.
Wesley Gonzales, Wax Limousine– A classic synth pop feeling and sure upbeat song structure feeling, offset by the languorous vocals and smart complicated lyrics. It’s always pretty good, and occasionally it’s extraordinary. I’m not sure it tipped over that line often enough, but it can’t be dismissed.
Wet Tuna, Warping All By Yourself– When I hear that an album is by psychedelic folkies living in a Vermont cabin, I can’t help but be interested. And wonder how far away from me they live! There’s no denying this trippy swirl of electronic dance, psychedelic effects and sometimes prog rock-sounding sections is interesting, but it’s a little abstract and untethered to work at album length.
YIN YIN, The Age of Aquarius– This was described as SE Asian influenced psychedelia, which was very interesting to me. And it is interesting, albeit I think more in a mode of SE Asian music-influenced dance music? There are some intriguing soundscapes here, although it eventually gets a little too muzaky.
Young Guv, Guv III– This Toronto musician relocated to Brooklyn has a sound that would have worked well on the crossover between pop and indie rock in the 90s. Really pretty well done, but it doesn’t sound sufficiently different from a lot of other things, then and now, which sound similar.
Young Prisms, Drifter– Very fuzzy musically and vocally, in the 90s shoegaze distortion kind of way. Not unlike everything had gotten refracted through a prism! It’s not a bad example of what it is, but also doesn’t get a lot beyond it.
And thus we end our review of March/April only shortly after the beginning on June! I have high hopes for getting May out, in its own post, before the end of the month…
With all due apologies to Brittney (and please don’t put me in a conservatorship): Oops I’m doing it again! In 2021 I set out to catch up on the backlog from years of not listening to newer music by two blog series reviewing the critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and 2020. And I did a third blog series where I tried to get even more present by listening to new releases monthly on my way to choosing the 21 best albums of 2021.
This exercise led to some great finds! It piqued my interest more than enough to keep doing it, and it also occurred to me along the way that while many artists put out an album (or more than one!) yearly, there are equally many who take two or three years between albums. There’s a lot of folks I haven’t even heard from yet! So here I go again, only now it’s 2022, thus I’m going to look for the 22 best albums of the year.
How? Well, the same way we did last year! I’m listening to new releases as they come out each month. Along the way, I’ll sort them into three categories:
Yes– This isn’t a guarantee, but it represents the albums that, upon first listen, I think could definitely be in running for best of the year.
Maybe– These albums have something to recommend them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m putting them in their own category, because I have found “maybes” sometimes linger and eventually become “yeses”.
No– This can be a tricky category. Sometimes you end up here because you’re crap. You can also be fine though, but not more than fine. Or interesting and inspired, but a little too incoherent to totally pull together. Getting to yes ain’t easy!
What genres am I listening to? My musical interests are, and always have been, a pretty broadly defined version of Rock and the genres that led to and descended from it. So if you’re blues, country, dance, electronic, folk, hip-hop, metal, pop, punk, ska, soul, etc., I’m probably listening. Unless you’re too far on the side of ambient in electronic, because I just can’t.
Okay, all that having been established, let us now boldly forward to the review of the 160 new releases I listened to from January/February! (I’m combining these two months together since they typically have lighter release schedules, and since finishing the 2021 reviews took me well into the New Year!)
Apollo Brown/Stalley, Blacklight– This collaboration between Detroit record producer Brown and Ohio rapper Stalley delivers some great hip-hop! The production is layered and dynamic, strong flow, clever rhymes, and a personal-feeling message of perseverance and positivity under the swagger. It reminds me, favorably, of Jay-Z.
Artsick, Fingers Crossed– High energy guitar pop and affecting female lead vocals? That’s a good way to get me in. This reminds me of a hooky pop-rocking 90s band, which means in a way it also reminds me of the poppier end of 60s garage rock bands. I like being reminded of both these things! While there’s a definite unity of sensibility here, the songs have enough of an individual identity that each one holds attention on its own. Well done, little band from Oakland!
Boulevards, Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud– A lot of people seem to be mining a 70s funk/soul vein these days, but my word does it sound glorious when it’s done right. This North Carolina one-time punk and metal artist who found himself drawn back to the funk and R&B music he was raised with is doing it right, totally operating in a classic vein but so genuinely it sounds fresh and alive.
Eels, Extreme Witchcraft– Rock, rock, guitar rock! This album kicks right into it, and mostly doesn’t let up from there. In the moments when it does slow down a little, the ragged vocals, playful musical experimentation and lyrical interest keep things going. This indie rock band fronted in various combinations by Los Angeles singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mark Oliver Everett has been kicking around since the 90s, and clearly he hasn’t lost his edge.
John Mellencamp, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack– I’ve always had a soft spot for John Mellencamp. At his best he’s been an incisive lyricist along with a strong musician. On the poppier side of it, but certainly homing in on a certain heartland rock vibe that can get quite profound, a la Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, etc. That’s definitely the space he’s in on this album (with several Springsteen guest appearances to prove the point). The music is nuanced, the lyrics are darkly evocative with themes of time, memory, and loss, and his voice is beautifully ragged. This is the kind of album that you have to have a lifetime behind you to make, and he’s earned it.
Johnny Marr, Fever Dreams, Pts. 1-4– If Guitar Gods did not end with the 70s, certainly somebody who deserves consideration in the category is Johnny Marr, for his co-leading of the Smiths, and numerous solo and group projects since then. You’ll hear echoes of all his eras here- the Smiths, The The, his Factory work from the 90s, solo albums. But mostly what you’ll hear is really excellent dynamic guitar work. And if you are only familiar with Marr from his lead guitar work with the Smiths, you may be favorably impressed with the lyrical and vocal skills he’s developed since. The run time’s a little long (this release combines two 2021 EPs with a new part 3 and part 4) but it remains dynamic and evocative throughout.
Katie Dey, Forever Music– A sweet little lo-fi distorted fuzzy synth-pop dance album with absolutely harrowing emotional lyrical content. I don’t even mind the autotune here, because it’s in service of the subversive contradiction between the two. This Australian artist has described this approach in interviews as a way of dealing with her experience as a trans woman, making the pain of struggle with dysphoria more palatable through musical lightness.
Kids on a Crime Spree, Fall in Love Not in Line– Now here is a band who has well learned the art of 60s jangly guitar bell-ringing rock (via some influence from punk and 80s/90s alt). Is it the most original or profound thing ever? No. But it is flawlessly done. And yet another band who I hear and like, and then subsequently find out is from Oakland. You can take the guy out of the Bay Area, but you can’t take the Bay Area out of…
Love, Burns, It Should Have Been Tomorrow– The solo project of Phil Sutton, a Queens-based singer/songwriter and veteran of multiple indie bands. He’s learned the craft well- these are perfect shimmery, guitar jangly pop songs with yearning vocals and revealing yet polished lyrics.
Miles Kane, Change the Show– This co-founder of several UK indie bands brings a sound to his solo album that combines 70s AM radio and 60s swinging pop, with a nice little dash of pub rock, but doesn’t feel like a museum piece or a self-conscious homage. Every note and every word is utterly sincere, and fresh sounding.
Nicfit, Fuse– This outing from a Japanese punk band is on the frosty, machiney, post-punk end of the street. I’m liking that side of the street as I listen to this! It’s got a relentless energy that propels things forward, a menacing abrasive edge that never lets one feel fully at ease, but a weirdly melodic nature that balances things out. And the last song is even named “Ack Ack Ack”. How am I not going to love that?
Reptaliens, Multiverse– I mean the group name, the album name, the knowledge that they like to write about alien conspiracies. How could I not? All that being said, not a lot of alien on this outing, but they are surprisingly sweet and melodic musically and vocally while lyrically probing the darker edges of interior landscapes. This is some excellent neo-psychedelic rock that rolls charmingly and somewhat disturbingly along without a hitch.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Nightroamer– Driving yet very spare country with more than a trace of rock influence, and vocals and music occasionally sounding like they’re being tuned in by an AM radio. It’s got a classic minor chords and big organ sound that I appreciate, but livened by some more contemporary rock/pop dynamism. Perhaps, when one is a non-binary bisexual atheist, one’s approach to country is especially fresh. Wherever it comes from, North Carolina-based Shook is a unique and worthy voice in country.
Shovels & Rope, Manticore– It opens with a lyrical assault and bouncy beat, driving flexible guitars and high energy vocals. Subsequent tracks find a slower vein, reminiscent of the dense and dark storytelling of Nick Cave, but in an American stories vein like the Hold Steady, and with a heavy country lean. I did miss the energy, but the assured musical mastery and lyrical and vocal power never let up. This South Carolina folk duo is doing some good work!
Simone Felice, All The Bright Coins– This Felice Brother out on his own evokes a 70s singer-songwriter and spoken word vibe as he lyrically plumbs the depths of the 90s. It’s evocative and kind of fascinating!
Swami John Reis, Ride The Wild Night– I first knew of John Reis when I was living in San Diego in the mid-90s and he was heading local garage-punk powerhouse Rocket From the Crypt. He was great then and he’s great here- this album is pure garage rock snarl from the get-go! It makes me so, so happy.
Adult., Becoming Undone– Some old school electronic, harking back to the spare 70s and the industrial machine sounds of the 80s. A Detroit band from the 90s, both members of whom have art degrees, so, you know, you’ve got the electronic/techno pedigree for it. The pacing isn’t always the best, but the contents are compelling on every single track.
Beach House, Once Twice Melody– Beautiful, shimmery, gauzy, and in a way, beachy. I liked the Beach House release last year too, but ultimately it was a little too gauzy to stand up to repeat listening vis-à-vis other releases from the year. Will that be true this time? We’ll have to repeatedly listen to see!
Beechwood, Sleep Without Dreaming– A good moody rock outing with ragged vocals. Their cover of the Beatles “Rain” gives you some idea of their sensibilities. Overall, I’m not sure it’s fresh/original enough to get to “yes”, but it is a solid listen.
Bonobo, Fragments– This feels like it’s coming from the Mobyish end of electronica- recognizable musical structure, a stab at lyrics and vocals, but sometimes surprising sampling and complex layering throughout. It doesn’t always stand out, but it is a good listen that never lets you down on any individual track.
Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, Backhand Deals– Callbacks to classic rock (UK edition) and 80s guitar alt (also UK edition). This sound is paired with a millennial mindset subject matter, which is interesting too. Is it especially profound? No. Just pure listening fun!
Carson McHone, Still Life– Solid folk/country inflected rock with emotionally complex lyrics and a strong yearning voice. I wasn’t sure if the pacing totally worked, but this Texas singer-songwriter clearly has something going on.
Che Noir, Food for Thought– Powerful thoughtful positive lyrics, strong vocal flow, and some interesting mixing. It reminds me of late 80s/early 90s hip-hop in some ways. This Buffalo-based emcee and producer sometimes veers a little too much in the bragging street talk direction, but when she is, it’s not totally out of place, and when she’s not doing that, it’s excellent.
Eddie Vedder, Earthling– In many ways this album represents Eddie Vedder having fun. Which is nice to hear! It has a very buoyant feeling, and often plays with classic rock sounds. It feels like it peters out a little at the end, and has the problem any maker of epochal work has, which is that I semi-unconsciously compare everything to the first three Pearl Jam albums. It’s not that, but it is good clean rocking out!
Elena Setien, Unfamiliar Minds– I love this Basque artist’s vocal alchemy, and the haunting musical and lyrical subtext of her songs. Is it maybe a little experimental and all on one energy level/tone for repeated listening? Maybe. But it is compelling!
Eric Gales, Crown– Some blistering blues-rock with at times an almost grunge edge and more than a hint of hip-hop influence. There are times it feels a little formulaic, but there are also times that the depth and soulfulness is stunning. The run time is long, but on the other hand, it’s well-paced and well-structured. All-in-all-the eighteenth album from this one-time child prodigy is brimming over with a lifetime of experience and talent.
Hurrah for the Riff Raff, Life on Earth– Slightly uncanny dance music, sometimes more rocking or acoustic, with great vocal phrasing, and lyrics that weave a spell as she talks to you. The focus is a little scattered, with some pacing slowdown in the middle, but the vocals and lyrics from this New Orleans band formed by Bronx singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra are so searing it wins through.
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales, Mo’ Tales: The Deluxe– An expansion of her much-lauded 2021 album (which made my “honorable mention” list and topped many other critics lists). It expands the thesis, but keeps things powerful and listenable. With maybe some points off for still being largely composed of the prior album’s material?
Josephine Foster, Godmother– A haunting and off-kilter folk-electronic outing from this Colorado musician. To quote her website: “During the long 2020-21 winter, partnered with a thrift store digital keyboard and its programmed Latin rhythms, Josephine Foster arranged and recorded her cosmic cantata, Godmother, an electric and electrifying journey into new territories of her imagination.” It’s really pretty compelling- I kept wondering if it was too low key overall, but then there kept being a surprising moment (or multiple moments) in each song that brought me back.
Lavender Country, Blackberry Rose– It has a good story- the artist who released the first gay-themed country album ever back in the 70s put out a new album in 2019 that didn’t get proper backing, so it’s re-released now with some additional production. I’m intrigued going in! It holds up to my interest pretty well- the music is straight-up (all puns intended) old style country, and the lyrics are full of country tropes with clever subversions. Even the vocals conform to an old-style twang. It’s sometimes a little too on the nose, but really is a very interesting world turned upside down.
Night Shop, Forever Night– A nice spare and bouncy rock sound with driving guitar, intelligent lyrics, and clear storytelling from Los Angeles indie rocker Justin Sullivan. Sometimes it veers a little towards the blandly produced, and there are sequencing issues, but a worthy outing.
Pedro the Lion, Havasu– Hmmm. This has a very Counting Crows kind of feel. I like that feel, but do I really need someone who isn’t Counting Crows doing it? On the other hand, it’s well done. And if it’s somewhat ponderous in its melancholy, it’s also an exquisitely literate and weirdly compelling deep dive into childhood memories. Pedro founder David Bazan has been working various indie rock bands since 2005 and you can tell he’s honed a fearsome craft doing it.
Slash, 4– Well we had Johnny Marr in the “Yes” section, here’s another great candidate for “later-day Guitar God”. The guitar work here is, well, Slash- clean, classic, virtuositic, and heavy. And it’s kind of amazing what a good ersatz Axl Rose replacement he got in vocalist Myles Kennedy. Is this really getting us something equal to the best of GNR? Of course not. Or substantially different from what we got with Velvet Revolver? Again, no. But it’s solid, it works, and I enjoyed it the whole way through.
Spoon, Lucifer on the Sofa– Spoon has always been a good band, but I feel like they’ve really cranked into high gear here. There are a few songs that are a little too produced and smooth, but most of the album has rawness, immediacy, and is brimming with great rock hooks. It’s on the edge of out of the ballpark, and definitely deserves consideration.
The Jazz Butcher, The Highest in the Land– I’ve known The Jazz Butcher since I was a wee alternate 80s rock lad. He’s always been highly idiosyncratic, and here seems to be in a vocally mellow, musically bouncy, lyrically introspective mood, but his distinctive surrealistic storyscapes are as potent as ever. It reminds me of 2021 albums his contemporaries Billy Bragg and Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding) made in the same vein. The energy level isn’t high, but the heart sustains it.
The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Summer at Land’s End– Their album Uncommon Weather ended up making my first cut in 2021. This has a lot of the same things going for it- amazing sad bastard energy, subtle vocals and shimmery moody music, emotionally complex lyrics. And maybe the same main caution on my end- it’s very much of a tone musically and emotionally. Will it make the cut this time? We’ll have to see, but it’s so good at what it does that I can’t dismiss the possibility!
The Soundcarriers, Wilds– This has a very 60s melodious side of garage/psychedelia feeling. And/or an 80s alt band channeling that same feeling. Given that it’s thus one or two times derived, I’m not an automatic yes. But given how very well it’s done, I can’t be a no!
The Weeknd, Dawn FM– This is the third time I’ve tried to like an album by the Weeknd, and I think I’ve finally succeeded! Still way too much autotune for me, but it is deployed in the context of retro soul/dance music where at least it makes sense. There was also a pretty successful framing structure, and some interesting wrestling with darker themes. So, nice fun dance music, and a little more to bring it together. I’m still not totally sold on some of the guest appearances (so often the downfall of a contemporary album), but I do appreciate what he’s doing.
Urge Overkill, Oui– In our latest episode of “90s Flashbacks”, we have a new album from Urge Overkill! I know I should be cautious on general grounds of blasts form the past, and I assure you I am. But, in fact their out of time hard rock mélange still works very well, and darned if those 90s melodic twists didn’t twist my heart just like they intended. And it was interesting to hear them cover Wham!’s “Freedom” too!
Yard Act, The Overload– How much do I love quirky, clever lyrics, deliberately unpolished vocals, and off-kilter angular new wave-influenced rock? A lot, and this UK band is doing it very well! It does get a little samey by the end, but it also bounces along and keeps one engaged. Maybe!
A Place to Bury Strangers, See Through You– This New York City-based band provides some excellent noise rock with an 80s industrial/post punk feeling. It does get a little samey as it wears on, though.
Adam Miller, Gateway– An instrumental album from an Australian guitar virtuoso. It’s a little too all-instrumental and all in one musical vein to work as a general album, but one can certainly appreciate the technical skill.
Adekunle Gold, Catch Me If You Can– Nigerian singer-songwriter. I enjoyed the musical side of it a lot, but the autotune vocals got to me after a while.
Alice Glass, Prey//IV– I did appreciate the electro-goth as dance music focus, and the occasionally really grating edges. On the whole, though, it’s a little too autotuned and indistinct track to track to work for me.
Alt-J, The Dream– There was some interesting stuff going on in the off-kilter electronic swirl of this album, but it never quite clicked for me.
Amber Mark, Three Dimensions Deep– The musical/sampling part of the start was promising, then came the autotuned vocal part of the start. Subsequent tracks don’t go that way, in fact seem to be more in a retro 90s soul realm and are nice enough.
Amos Lee, Dreamland– He’s nice enough, in fact he’s really good. But in a blandly well produced kind of way. I didn’t find anything I could really latch on to.
Andy Bell, Flicker– I always feel duty-bound to note that this is NOT the Andy Bell of Erasure, but the Andy Bell who was a founder of the shoegaze scene in the UK. This is some very good electronic music, but at length it kind of blends together.
Anna von Hausswolff, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival– Now this is interesting- a thick atmospheric swirl, hypnotic spell of her voice, sense of looming power and dread, sound straddling the realms of orchestral and noise rock. And the fact that it’s a live album gives a nice little edge to something that could have otherwise been pretty heavy. It eventually got bogged down by that weight, but it was an interesting ride on the way.
Aoife O’Donovan, Age of Apathy– Folky semi-country, with a pop gloss. She’s got a great voice, and way with lyrics, but it all feels a little too “nice enough” and smooth going down.
Ari Roar, Made to Never Use– Jangly guitar pop and fuzzy vocals. Yay! It was eventually a little too same track to track, but it was fun along the way.
AURORA, The Gods We Can Touch– She’s Norwegian, and I’ve developed a solid respect for Scandinavian rockers, so we’re off to a good start. This is more on the ethereal side of dance pop, with a rock edge, but it does have a lot to recommend it. I think where it ultimately runs aground is that it’s pulling in different directions, almost always interestingly, but it never feels like it quite comes together.
Author & Punisher, Kruller– A little metal, a little electronic/industrial, a little emo. It’s fine moody music but doesn’t really become anything special beyond that.
Avril Lavigne, Love Sux– She’s returning to the feisty pop-flavored punk (or punk-flavored pop?) that first brought her to fame. It’s in good form, but it inherently feels kind of prefab.
Babyface Ray, Face– There’s nteresting mixology going on here, and a strong voice, with some complexity to the lyrics. On the downside, eventually there’s too much autotune, and not enough vocal dynamism to sustain it for an hour run length.
Bad Boy Chiller Crew, Disrespectful– A pretty fun mash-up of club dance music, UK hip-hop, and dub. It bounces along pretty well, but at almost an hour runs too long without something holding it together or varying things from track to track.
Bastille, Give Me The Future– Solid beat-heavy 2000s rock-pop. Sounds like a lot of other solid 2000s rock-pop.
BBC Radiophonic Workshop/Stealing Sheep, La Planète Sauvage– A pop band and the BBC’s sound effects unit get together to re-record the soundtrack of a trippy 70s animated sci-fi classic. The concept was intriguing enough to get me to listen, but it ends up being a little too abstracted and sound-tracky to work as a sustainable, memorable album.
Beth Hart, A Tribute to Led Zeppelin– It’s a good double premise: A contemporary blues-influenced artist takes on Led Zeppelin. And a lesbian woman takes on the mother-lode of hetero cock rock. And it is very well done- I enjoyed every second, and there are some fun gender/sexuality inversions along the way. Musically, though, it fell too often into the trap of overly faithful covers. Excellent covers, but not really bringing new or different things out of the songs.
Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You– A New York indie folk group, and really, they were pretty good with sharp lyrics, low key but well-done vocals and music, and sometimes did things that were positively unexpected and arresting. There needed to be more of these moments to make the 80-minute run time work, though.
Billy Talent, Crisis of Faith– A little emo-ey, a little metal-ey. The guitar is rocking like I like to rock, but otherwise it’s not really standing out from its own cliches.
Black Country, New Road, Ants From Up There– A weird pseudo-jazz beginning becomes clanging guitar with a touch of country fiddle sound. This proves not to have been a fluke, and the whole thing is delightfully off-kilter, with a kind of arch lyrics and vocal edge of frenzy that reminds me of David Bowie. Unfortunately, it has some pacing problems, and seems to repeatedly slow down just when the momentum is really catching.
Blood Incantation, Timewave Zero– This sounds like the slow orchestral parts of black metal. With all the other parts removed.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Bill Callahan, Blind Date Party– Okay, going in, I know I like the Bonnie Prince, and it’s a covers album, which I often enjoy. On the other hand, it’s 90-minutes long, which instinctively fills me with trepidation. There’s a great variety of material, and approaches taken to that material, so it works well on that side. Eventually the length, and a few too-experimental outings keep it from fully working. Still, some great songs are in here!
Boris, W – It’s all a little too ethereal and swirly for me to solidly sink my whatevers into.
Boundary Object, Gabor Lazar– I mean, it was kind of fun and energetic, but a little too on the repetitive computer sounds side of electronic for me.
Brent Cobb, And Now, Let’s Turn to Page…– Pop country star does some nice enough country gospel. But it’s a little formulaic and doesn’t get much beyond that.
Carmen Villain, Only Love From Now On– I do like anybody with the last name villain. The album itself, however, is all instrumental and experimental, full of quiet electronic orchestra, sound effects, and distorted jazz moments. That’s a tougher sell for me.
Caroline, Caroline– This was sometimes an electronic country album, sometimes something more abstract and experimental, sometimes some really very effecting moody lyrical synth. It never quite came together for me, but it was interesting.
Cat Power, Covers– All right, I like Cat Power, I like covers, let’s see how this goes. Pretty well! It doesn’t totally come together- there is a good variety of sources, but her approach to them tends toward a sort of sameness. A nice, mellow, high-quality sameness, but it doesn’t quite stand out.
Cate Le Bon, Pompeii– This Welsh singer-songwriter leans toward the experimental side. It’s a good experiment, in fact an interesting deconstruction of pop song, but feels a little meandery and lacking in coherence at times.
Cloakroom, Dissolution Wave– This is your typical album about a physics incident that causes a dissolution wave that wipes out humanity’s art and abstract thought. You won’t get that from a casual listen though, what you will get is the fuzzy guitar, the shimmering sheets of noise, and the waves of vocal feeling. It’s really pretty good aurally, but it does start to fade into sameness. And it feels like a problem to me that it can have a strong theme that’s not even detectable upon first listen.
Combo Chimbita, IRE– There is some fine minor chord strumming early on. It then goes in all kinds of musical directions from there- ballad, dance, jazz, Latin, and is really pretty good. But also all in Spanish, which prevented me from getting my hooks into it, lyrically.
Conway the Machine, God Don’t Make Mistakes– Not badly done, but a pretty standard 2020’s hip-hop album.
Dashboard Confessional, All the Truth That I Can Tell– Holy 00s flashback Batgirl! They pretty much are in their top form here, and their top form isn’t bad (in a very formulaic kind of way), but it’s not best of year memorable.
Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Cold as Weiss– As all-instrumental jazz albums go, this really works pretty well. It’s heavily informed by funk and soul, and there’s something electric and buoyant about it. Eventually I couldn’t quite keep going as the muzaky elements came to the fore, but it was close!
Deserta, Every Moment, Everything You Need– Very atmospheric, moody swirly, hazy. Not really something substantial enough to sink one’s teeth into, though.
DJ Python, Club Sentimientos Vol. 2– It’s clubby. It’s DJey. It’s pleasant. It doesn’t get much beyond that.
Earl Sweatshirt, Sick!– Some powerful vocal delivery, and nice spare mix that delivers a variety of feelings. It doesn’t totally come together and rise above, though- there’s some sense of lack of unity.
EarthGang, Ghetto Gods– Sometimes quite fun, but mostly too autotuned and 2020s hip-hop conventional.
Elles Bailey, Shinning in the Half Light– Bluesy, vocally skillful singer, but it feels a little too much by formula.
Elvis Costello, The Boy Named If– Elvis Costello has been my main man since I was in my teens, which at this point has been… a while. So, on some level, I’m going to groove on almost anything he puts down. And it doesn’t hurt that his backing band, The Imposters, plays in an old-time rock and soul vein. So there is that, but this somehow feels unfocused and not crisp. I’m comparing him to his best, which is transcendent, but, well, that’s what you get for being a great. While individual songs from this album get there at times, as a whole it doesn’t measure up.
Eric Chenaux, Say Laura– An interesting experimental jazz-inflected piece from a former 90s Toronto punk. Very worthy in its way, but a little too ethereal for me.
EXEK, Advertise Here– Working a post-punk/dub/early electronic vein, this band is producing some interesting music, but it’s a little too brittle and on the experimental edge of listenable to work as an album for me.
Fickle Friends, Are We Gonna Be Alright?– A bit of 90s alternative feeling, a bit of slinky disco throwback. It’s all right, but it doesn’t really get beyond that.
FKA Twigs, Caprisongs– I came to appreciate FKA twigs during my 2010s review, so I was interested in what this, her mixtape project, would be like. Her off-center take on dance music and 2000s R&B is good stuff and is in excellent form here. The proliferation of guest features, which can be dicey for album coherence is working as well. It eventually overstays it’s welcome by being a little too long/too much the same, but there’s nothing wrong with a little good dance music.
Foxes, The Kick– This is some pretty good dance music, but it sort of runs out of just how far it can go on that after a while.
Gang of Youths, Angel in Realtime– This Australian indie rock band sound like a prime sample vintage 00s mass-market indie rock band. Don’t really care for it!
Garcia Peoples, Dodging Dues– We’ve got a very 70s rock feeling going on here. It’s groovy and mellow, but it doesn’t feel like it’s having a lasting impact on me.
Grace Cummings, Stormqueen– A neo-folk approach, and this Melbourne-based singer-songwriter puts some considerable power behind it. She’s a little weird, and I certainly appreciate that, but it ends up being all too much in one musical tone to sustain at album length.
Great Lakes, Contenders– Athens GA band formed in the 90s, but you’ll hear echoes of the 80s Athens scene and more than a little debt to the Velvet Underground too. Not at all bad, in fact rather good rock, but a little too museum-feeling.
Gunna, DS4Ever– A vast auto-tuned hip-hop wasteland.
Hikaru Utada, Bad Mode– It’s some J-Pop. It’s pretty nice! It doesn’t rise above and beyond enough to contend for “year’s best” though.
Hippo Campus, LP3– I mean, it’s a very nice 2000s somewhat rocky, somewhat dancey, very upbeat kind of thin. It doesn’t really stand out from its (very crowded) pack though.
Holm, Why Don’t You Dance?– A Danish band, doing good rock as Scandinavians are wont to do. It reminds me of the more guitary end of 80s alt. I’m not sure it stands out a whole lot beyond that, though.
Huerco S., Plonk– Some rather abstract electronic, a little too far in that direction for me.
Jake Xerxes Fussell, Good and Green Again– A very pleasant folky, country kind of outing. Doesn’t get a lot beyond that.
Jana Horn, Optimism– There are lyrical depths here, but the vocal and musical setting is so low-key and same track-to-track it has trouble hitting with full impact.
Jasss, A World of Service– A little too much mostly in Spanish, a little too much autotune, a little too much dance music that, outside of some interesting grating moments, is not dynamic or interesting enough.
John Mayall, The Sun is Shining Down– The 60th album from veteran British Bluesman John Mayall, recorded shortly after his 88th birthday. It’s worthy of respect, and he’s in fine, relaxed form. But does it rise to the level of his best, or the year’s best?
Joss Stone, Never Forget My Love– Joss Stone, is of course, a very good vocalist and songwriter, and that’s no less true here. That being said, this was a little too on the smooth, polished, high quality production side for me. I like my glory a little more ragged.
Joywave, Cleanse– Nice 2000s White guy electronic dance music. Eh.
Keb’ Mo’, Good To Be…– As contemporary blues artists go, he’s one of the great ones. Leaning in a country direction on this album, which is pretty delightful. It’s a little too formulaic and smooth to rise to “great” but fans of his and fans of the genres definitely might enjoy it.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Butterfly 3001– Remixes by various artists of their 2021 album Butterfly 3000. I do like these remixes, but I’m not sure if we need two hours of them! Especially given the original album wasn’t one of my semi-finalists for the year.
Korn, Requiem– Well here’s a 90s flashback for me! I mean, they’re fine, in a Korny kind of way, and they’re in classic form here. But I’m not hearing a lot that’s new or really stands out.
Kreidler, Spells and Daubs– I don’t know-there’s things that sound like office supplies being rifled through, a rolodex that’s getting stuck on something, some empty tin can beats. It’s a little too abstract electronic for me.
Lady Wray, Piece of Me– This is some very nice, harking back to the classics, soul/R&B. But I’m not hearing something in “best of year” territory on it.
Little Green House, Anxious– It’s an emoey punky poppy kind of thing. Salvum me fac de inferno.
Los Bitchos, Let the Festivities Begin– I mean, you call yourself Los Bitchos and I’m going to really want to like you. This outing from four musicians from four different countries who got to know each other playing in London’s club scene turns out to be an all-instrumental album, informed by Latin rhythms, some ska, some surf, and a lot of pluck. Not solid enough, sans any lyrics, for me to really get a hold of though.
Lucki/F1lthy, WAKE UP LUCKI– Not a bad hip-hop album, but a little light on depth, and the flow, mix, and content, for the most part, don’t really stand out.
Martina Topley-Bird, Forever I Wait– This is lush and layered, and lyrically complex, but the electronic music and her vocals are both too same track to track, so it all ends up going kind of indistinct.
Mary J. Blige, Good Morning Gorgeous– She’s in good form here, a kind of 2000s-ified production of 90s soul. I don’t think it’s rising above to something extraordinary, though.
Methyl Ethel, Are You Haunted?– Pretty well-done bedroom pop from this Australian artist, but it descends into a kind of track-to-track sameness.
Metronomy, Small World– This English electronic music group kept having me on the edge of yes with their upbeat charm, and then on the edge of no with the relative track to track sameness. Except then something comes along by surprise and pulls it out. I rode the edge the whole time, but I think that very unevenness tips it, very narrowly, into “no”.
Mild Orange, Looking For Space– This was mellow and gauzy and dreamy and never really landed for me.
Mitski, Laurel Hell– The sonorous dreamscapes of this Japanese-American singer’s songs are compelling. It is kind of all-in-one energy vein, though, so it stops working after a while.
Mo, Motordrome– She’s Danish, her eyes are glowing red on the cover, and there’s a song called “Brad Pitt”. This are the kinds of details that incline me favorably pre-listen. It turns out to be some good, consistently high-energy dance music. But I don’t know that it gets above and beyond that enough to be in “year’s best” territory.
Modern Nature, Island of Noise– An experimental band’s concept album based on the sounds of nature is a fairly intriguing idea. It ends up being a little too amorphous and low key to totally gel together for me, but it does have something compelling going on!
Modern Studies, We Are There– It’s not bad, but musically and vocally, it’s rather chilly and spare. Perhaps like a Modern Studies course?
Molly Nillson, Extreme– Shimmering wall of guitar and vocals that remind me of a certain strain of 80s alt (think, Jesus and Mary Chain, for example) and 90s alternative (think My Bloody Valentine or Galaxie 500, perhaps). Or at least it was for the first track or two, until it went in a Portishead or even Everything But the Girl direction. The former had my attention, the later lost me.
OMBIIGIZI, Sewn Back Together– Shoegazey, gauzy, and at its best moments still electric and dynamic enough to be compelling. But there weren’t enough of those moments before it fuzzed out again.
Partner Look, By The Book– cute, very spare synth pop. And the lyrics are often hilarious, but I think it ends up being a little too samesies and insubstantial to work.
Pinegrove, 0.465972222222222– This is the kind of jangly indie rock with soft-loud stop-starts that I generally like, and I do like it. But not particularly more than many another example I’ve heard.
Prins Thomas, Prins Thomas, Vol. 8– It’s just all a little too mellow new agey electronic for me.
Punch Brothers, Hell on Church Street– Some nice folk, bluegrass, country action, and I really appreciated the Dylan cover. The best moments are quite something, but it has a bad habit of lulling to just “okay” in-between. Getting to “great” is a harsh mistress!
Raveena, Asha’s Awakening– It’s described as “a concept album from the perspective of a Punjabi space princess”, and of course I love that. It’s also often fun dance music on top of that, but it doesn’t quite totally hang together for the entire run time, despite many really great moments along the way.
RIP Swirl, Blurry– It’s just all a little too peppy whory new agey electronic for me.
Robert Glasper, Black Radio III– A lot of this was working for me- the weaving together of soul, jazz, hip-hop, and philosophical reflections on Black life in America. And a lot of it wasn’t- extensive dips into autotune, lack of coherence. I think this is a case of very worthy material that doesn’t quite make a sustainable album in whole.
Saba, Few Good Things– It definitely has some interesting flourishes going for it- soulful mixes, a clear bright sound, traces of the best of 90s conscious and 00s sophisticated hip-hop. It often dips into the territory of too autotuned, and is not totally coherent, but part of that is the beauty of its rich track to track variety. Eventually the shallow autotune won out over what was otherwise excellent content and pushed it to “no”.
Sally Shapiro, Sad Cities– Nice atmospheric jazzy synthy pop heavy on melody and rich emotional vocals. But if I want more of this kind of thing, I always have Dido.
SASAMI, Squeeze– There were some moments that were genuinely uncanny and unsettling, and she was always good in her mixture of dance music, orchestral electronic, grunge-influenced rock, and darkness. I’ll keep my eye on her, for sure, but as an album it didn’t feel coherent enough to totally work.
Sea Power, Everything Was Forever– Moody, synthy, smooth, atmospheric. Nah.
Seafoam Walls, XVI– It’s a nice enough mellow, beaty, pseudo-dancey thing. Get it away from me.
Shamir, Heterosexuality– The heart of this album is very much in the right place, and its lyrics clever and incisive in their tackling of heteronormativity. The music and vocals side, though, it’s a little too conventional 00s dance to really pull it off.
Shinichi Atobe, Love of Plastic– I’ve got to say, as not the biggest fan of electronic ever, this was pretty light and fun. In its more dynamic moments, it might well have made it onto my “yes” list or at least a “maybe”. There were longer sections that were a little too lulled out, though.
Shout Out Louds, House– A smooth and accomplished album, anthemic, but it’s a little too hollow/smooth in production ultimately.
Silavan Estrada, Marchita– It was very pretty and ballady, but also very all in Spanish, which made it difficult for me to get a hold of.
Soichi Terada, Asakusa Light– This is a nice mellow low-key electronic kind of thing. Very smooth and fun enough, but I’m not hearing anything dynamic or substantive enough to really get a hold of.
St. Paul & the Broken Bones, The Alien Coast– I think I’m in a spacey concept album with cool slinky beats that remind one of the dance 70s. I think I like this! It eventually gets a little too undifferentiated song to song to keep going as an album, but it is fun along the way.
Superchunk, Wild Loneliness– Superchunk’s alt rock jam band thing is a pretty fun thing, but it got a little repetitive/rote as this album went on.
Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point– This was unexpected (at least for me)- a much less synth-poppy outing than their 80s albums (though it does show a lot of the 60s flourishes of Sowing The Seeds of Love) and in general, less bombastic. Roland Orzabal processing the grief at his wife’s death from a long-term illness, and he and Curth Smith providing more acoustic and quiet moments. It isn’t quite coherent, and sometimes the production dulls the feeling, but the best parts are superb.
The Body/OAA, Enemy of Love– This is from the screaming/grating side of techno. Or maybe the techno side of screaming/grating metal?
The Cactus Blossoms, One Day– Something on the country edge of smooth 2000s indie pop-rock? Something on the smooth 2000s indie pop-rock side of country? Either way, it’s very pleasant, but I can’t.
The Lumineers, Brightside– The Lumineers are, of course, a good band. In many ways, a par excellence of 2000s indie rock bands that make it big. And they’re good on this album, but, to me, it all is just a little too smooth and digestible, without the gristle of vitality. I need the gristle of vitality!
The Rave-Ups, Tomorrow– The latest album from an alt country pre-pioneer. I would have loved this in the 80s, and it is very good at what it does, but it feels a little dated now.
The Temptations, 60– It’s amazing how good they still sound. It does lean a little more heavily in the direction of the 70s disco/80s R&B side of the Temptations, so many original members aren’t there anymore, but damn if they aren’t a smooth machine! It’s a little museum piece to make into “best of year”, but damn we should all be doing so well for our 60th album.
The Whitmore Sisters, Ghost Stories– I do like folk/country sisters, and when they’re on, they’re really on. Other times it’s a little too lulled-out and over-orchestrated so the full vitality doesn’t show through.
The Wombats, Fix Yourself, Not the World– This is a good example of the sophisticated slightly-sleazy 2000s rock band sound (UK version). If this was the early 2000s, it would really stand out (like, say, The Strokes did for the U.S. version), but it doesn’t really at this point, not enough to get to “best of the best” territory anyway.
Trupa Trupa, B Flat A– This was off to a very good clanging-rock start, but the tempo slowed in the middle, bringing the clanginess too much to the fore.
Underoath, Voyeurist– It’s a very shouty emo-hardcore-metal kind of thing. Not much more needs to be said.
Various Artists, Stars Rock Kill (Rock Stars)– For its 30th Anniversary, powerhouse indie label Kill Rock Stars released 65 covers of songs from throughout its history by…other artists from the same label! As concepts go, this is a great one, and if you like their brand of varied, edgy, and experimental rock, you will probably enjoy this. I think it’s too much of an “aficionados only” exercise to work at that length, but there are riches here.
Various Artists, Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono– It’s a promising combination- an idiosyncratic and often underappreciated musician covered by an array of idiosyncratic contemporary artists. While it never feels like it quite comes together as a whole, as some of the covers just mellowly blur out, some of them are vivid and challenging. Like Yoko Ono herself!
Voivod, Syncho Anarchy– This is a kind of metal that I do really appreciate, the ornate but noisy 90s Operation Mindcrime kind of realm. But it’s a little unfocused here, and tends toward the noisy annoying too often.
Walker Hayes, Country Stuff The Album– Ah, pop country. As such goes, it’s pretty good. “Good” in the cliched formulaic way that such goes, but with some considerable charm along the way.
White Lies, As I Try Not to Fall Apart– This sounds like it comes from the synth-heavy, dark and moody side of 80s alt. Like, really, I would not be surprised if I was listening to this on a late 80s Modern Rock station. So, to be clear, it’s a very good invocation, and if you like the genre, you might really like this. But I wonder if it’s too of that piece to work as an enduring best of year?
WifiGawd, Chain of Command– The flow and mix here is good, but I don’t think it reaches the “above and beyond” level.
Years & Years, Night Call– It’s a fun and high energy electronic dance album. It’s not, for the most part, a lot beyond that, and it doesn’t support the album length. Do put it on if you want to have a dance party in your living room for an hour though!
Yeat, 2 Alive– If you like your hip-hop autotuned all to hell, this is for you.
yeule, Glitch Princess– While it eventually gets a little too lost in one auto-tone, the best moments of this Singapore electronic musician’s album are genuinely unsettling, lyrically and musically. I’m totally interested in keeping an eye on them. (Note the digital version includes a 4+ hour ambient track. I did not listen to it! heck, maybe it was great, who knows…)
Yung Kayo, DFTK– this hip-hop album has got a lot of energy and engaging presence. It’s also got a lot of similarity track to track and whole bunches of autotune.
Now let’s see if I can still get the March review out before the end of April!
It was over a year ago that, as part of an effort to catch up on newer music, I set out to find the 21 best albums of 2021 by listening to new releases each month, and sorting them into yes/maybe/no. If you missed the individual monthly installments, you can find them here:
This was one of three music-related blog series I did this past year. The final installment of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s is here, and the wrap-up of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.
But you don’t want to hear about all that now, do you? You want to find out what the 21 best albums of 2021 were! We’ll get there in just a second, but first a quick overview of how I got to the final list:
Over the course of the year I listened to 1,026 (!) new releases
From these, I got a “Yes” list of 244 albums
Adding to this some entries from the “Maybe” list that had lingered with me got me 356 total possibilities
Re-listening to these 356 albums, I narrowed it down to 163 semi-finalists
I then gave these 163 another listen to get my top 21 (and 79 honorable mention)
And here, without further ado, are the plucky finalists. Aka,The 21 Best Albums of 2021!
Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams– A solid selection of British Soul, with a poetic sensibility throughout. Her lyrical emotional sophistication is breath-taking, and often haunting. On a musical level it is, in a way, very straightforward smooth soul. But that’s the knife edge that slips the lyrics in between your ribs before you know what’s happened.
Baio, Dead Hand Control– A solo effort from one of the leads of Vampire Weekend. It booms into gear from the get go, and feels like I’ve fallen in to the Pretty in Pink/Some Kind of Wonderful soundtracks. You can take the boy out of the Alternative 80s, but you can never fully take the Alternative 80s out of the boy… Having listened to it several times at different points during the past year, I can testify that every time it makes me happy.
Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid– Vocally and lyrically unusual, surrealistic, smart, and sometimes downright hilarious hip-hop. It deals, as many hip hop albums do, with the street life and the drug trade, but makes such unusual musical, lyrical, and vocal choices that it sounds nothing like every other hip hop album while doing it.
Celeste, Not Your Muse– A very well-produced British R&B/soul/jazz/dance offering with smoky, soulful, affecting lyrics. It’s a good mix of uptempo and downtempo songs, and works equally well on both. Just lovely the whole way through- she doesn’t have to be anyone’s muse if she doesn’t want to, but she obviously knows the muse well herself.
Czarface/MF Doom, Super What?– One of two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have in our list. RIP MF Doom. I don’t think it’s just sentiment that’s got me liking this- the delightful swirl of music and samples, pounding vocal flow, themes of superhero/sci-fi, pandemic, and pop culture, all add up to a great outing! And, amidst the celebration, sadness that there isn’t more to come.
Defcee & Messiah Musik, Trapdoor– This Chicago hip-hop artist brings super-smart and conscious lyrics, muscular vocal delivery, and a spare approach to beats and mix. This reminds me of a certain stream of 90s hip-hop that I’ve missed.
Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting Over– Imagine you are a sometimes not taken seriously pop princess. Imagine that as you were seemingly on top of the world you were actually wrestling with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and recovery from sexual assault. Now imagine that you go public with these struggles, your near-death from them, and release an album that is unstintingly honest and vulnerable about the process. And that you somehow make it into musically lush and vocally powerful pop music. Simply amazing.
Esther Rose, How Many Times– Solid acoustic folk with nice country flourishes. She has a clear and engaging voice, and things here are charmingly not perfectly smooth. As a result, it’s lively and utterly genuine-feeling. this is a great example of an album that does not necessarily have titanic ambitions, but wins through by flawless execution.
Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues– Nobody else quite does what Guided by Voices does, and they are doing it very well here. Every track is like an instant classic, and they’re all in different styles. It feels hard to believe you haven’t known these songs your whole life.
JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing– This album is really, a philosophical thesis about Blackness in America, ranging from history and literature to modern pop culture and everything in-between. That general subject area is anchored by Ellis’s specific meditations on music, and his own personal experience with his lifelong stutter (which he works in to the lyrics and music in various ways). All this is accompanied by clear beats and the light touch of smartly deployed electronic keyboard effects. It is fairly heady material, but also engaging in a way that keeps it working through multiple listens.
Judith Hill, Baby I’m Hollywood– She does classic smoldering soul, old style R&B, funk, and swinging rock equally well, with a voice that doesn’t have a note of falseness in it. Between musical variety and verve, soaring vocals, and sharp lyrics that address the personal and the social, there isn’t a single thing here not to love! Hill started as a backup singer who broke out on her own, was a former contestant on The Voice, and afterward was produced by Prince, and you can hear how much she’s mastered along the way.
Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters– This was her second album this past year, and, as always, she’s amazing. I did wonder about the slow vein it started in and mostly maintains, but as it goes on, it’s clear that this is deliberate- the album is a meditation on the richness of heartbreak and feeling blue. And it’s magnificently done.
Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice– Luminous lyrics and vocals, with an electronic-infused acoustic pop sound. She’s a First Nations Canadian writer/musician, and you will certainly hear that thematically here. But it’s so personal, evocative, and poetic that I think it reaches any audience even if that subtext is missed.
Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman– Oh my god, I love it! The kind of simultaneously personal and international tales of intrigue delivered in melodic pop and rock that Warren Zevon used to deliver. One might also hear hints of Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe. It pulls you in to its own weird world, and I never wanted it to end.
Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue– 50s/early 60s rock/soul revival sound with a wild edge and hint of alt rock darkness. Think of a kind of intersection of Buddy Holly/Buster Poindexter/Brian Setzer/early Elvis Costello. It’s nonstop excellent, and I fucking love it.
Remi Wolf, Juno– Musically, this is coming from a dance/pop direction, but her personality, hilarious and super-smart lyrics, and the verve and variety of the music mix all put it over the top. Apparently, she was on American Idol in 2014 as a high school student. She was way too good for them, as she subsequently proved by getting a music degree and then self-releasing her own material. This is her studio album debut, and I love it more each time I hear it. It’s not quite clear to me why she isn’t running the world, but I’m convinced eventually she will be!
Ron Gallo, PEACEMEAL– I mean, I’m both interested and leery when you start with a backwards vocals intro. This betrays a kind of 60s psychedelia/70s concept album bent which is borne out, but in the best indie lo-fi home-recorded kind of way, in the rest of the album. This is angsty, quirky, idiosyncratic, and delightfully unafraid to be awkward and goony.
Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby– Yes, that cover is really something. And it gives you a clue, in a way, to what’s going on inside. I love the ragged vocals and bitter emotionally sophisticated lyrics. The phrasing and music interplay belies the simplicity of each, creating layers even though it’s substantially only her voice and piano. Between all this, the album is legitimately harrowing. It’s like something this raw, revealing, and deliberately unpretty shouldn’t be out there. But here it is.
St. Lenox, Ten Songs of Worship & Praise for our Tumultuous Times– Boisterous, quirky and awkwardly earnest vocals and lyrics, music informed by gospel and electronic, unconventional spirituality, this really does achieve its stated aim of delivering songs of worship for our modern age!
Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita– This is the kind of “extended story” country album that you might have found coming out of Outlaw Country in the 70s (as if to prove the point, Willie Nelson appears on a track here). It is ridiculously well done, vocally and musically straight up, country music story-telling in top form. It’s hard to believe he’s contemporary since the sound is so classic, but this is his seventh album, and sounding classic is apparently kind of his forte.
Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers– Solid vocals and affecting lyrics, livened by skillful layered production. It pulls together acoustic, indie rock, classic soul and R&B, and psychedelia, and sounds equally natural and authentic doing it all. Bob Dylan has cited her as one of the contemporary artists he listens to, and I can see why. This is exquisite and gorgeous!
So there you have it, the 21 best albums of 2021.
But wait! Did I mention something above about honorable mention? I did! Having come all this way, it seemed remiss to not include albums that didn’t quite make the top 21, but still quite caught my fancy. 79 of them, to round us out to a nice even 100:
Aesop Rock/Blockhead, Garbology– I’ve listened to many great hip-hop albums this past year. And a whole lot of bad ones. So the bar is pretty high, but this collaboration of Portland-based underground hip-hop impresario Matthias Bavitz, aka Aesop Rock, and Manhattan record producer and DJ Tony Simon, aka Blockhead, deliverd. The vocals are pleasingly goony and un-smooth, the musical mix is wildly varied and muscular, and the lyrics are smart and off-kilter.
Alex Beeker, Heaven on the Faultline– This was just delightful from the first few bright, clear and poppy, lof-fi synth-organ notes. A sure feel for melody and hooks, packed with clever musical choices and lyrical surprises as well. I genuinely didn’t want it to end.
Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange– A plaintive folk-inflected beginning, then a muscular bruising blues track, then back to soulful orchestral folk, on to an eerie steel blues, and so on (with a country song tossed in the middle too). Musically excellent, and informed throughout with vocal power and sharp, clear, lyrical picture-painting.
Andrew W.K., God is Partying– Deliberately over the top melodramatic metal. Operatic, stirring, maybe hilarious. Is it serious? Is it ridiculous? Is it a skillful and heartfelt homage to metals and stadium rocks past? Friends, we don’t need to choose- It’s all of those things, and I freaking love it!
Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark– Dark and fascinating. Lyrically like some of the darker turns of goth music, but musically on the soft edge of indie folk and electronica, and the vocals are a kind of low-key narration. It all seems calculated to undersell how disturbing the content is.
BackRoad Gee, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads)– This British-Congolese artist brings together African pop, hip-hop, UK dub, and a delightful skillful wielding of varied sound effects and musical backgrounds. All this would work well just on the sonic side, but on top of that, lyrically it grapples honestly and intelligently with details of hard life in Africa and the UK.
Bat Fangs, Queen of My World– Do you know how much I appreciate jumping in at full rock from the first note? I appreciate it a lot! This album is steeped in the brighter side of 80s hard rock and hair metal, but with female leads. This works well, they deliver flawless cock rock without the downsides of cock attitude.
Benny the Butcher/Harry Fraud, The Plugs I Met 2– This collaboration brings together a New York-based MC and a hip-hop producer. There’s beautiful musical sampling work, fun weaving in of Scarface references, smooth vocal style, and lyrics with strong storytelling.
Big Jade, Pressure– I was a little flummoxed by this. It’s often the kind of bragging and dissing brand of hip-hop that I usually pass on. On the other hand, the gender inversion of how she does it is interesting, and the vocal stylings are strong and dynamic. There’s also a certain self-awareness in the unpleasantness of the character she puts forward. I can’t dismiss it!
Billy Childish/Wild Billy Childish & CTMF/CTMF, Where The Wild Purple Iris Grows– This English painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist delivers blistering punk/garage with hints of rocakbilly, and 80s-style folk-punk. And there’s a stinging blues-drenched Dylan cover to boot! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him earlier (he’s been kicking around since the late 70s), because what he’s doing is right up my alley!
Birds of Maya, Valdez– Recorded in 2014 as a follow-up to their well-received 2013 debut, but just now released due to the Philadelphia-based band reforming. Bruising noise rock, pieces that go into surging, crunching length, with hints of psychedelia and metal along the way but informed by punk spirit- this is as excellently straight-up as 2000s hard rock gets.
Charlotte Cornfield, Highs in the Minuses– This Canadian singer-songwriter is a hidden (at least heretofore to me) gem! Her songs know how to work a chord change and are solid musically, but where they really shine is the lyrics. They seem in a way, insularly personal and specific, but in that very specificity are somehow relatable- this is her life, and her thoughts and feelings about it, and hey, that kind of reminds me of my life, and my thoughts and feelings about it.
Circle/Richard Dawson, Henki– Dawson is an English neo-folk musician, and Circle is a Finnish experimental rock band. They describe this album as “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal”. That’s actually a pretty fair description of the mind-bending sound here. A little like prog rock, a little like Bowie and Ferry at their most theatrical, a little pinch of Bauhaus, a little off-kilter musically, vocally and lyrically, but always interesting and feeling looming with import. It’s not like everything else.
Cola Boyy, Prosthetic Boombox– Some disco throwback, some home-studio electronica, a lot of wit and eclecticism, not to mention solid fun. Score one for the Oxnard music scene!
Dave Gahan & The Soulsavers,Imposter– I don’t know what I was expecting from a Depeche Mode member’s side project, but I guess something generally Depeche Modey? To be sure, this is darkly textured and full of mood, but this series of widely ranging covers is musically treated as an invocation of old fashioned R&B, 60s soul, and the darker minor chords of 60s rock. Among others, he covers Neil Young and Dylan, which is a good way to win me over. There’s always been strong of homage to soul and R&B in synth pop, and I can see the dotted line between Depeche Mode and what he’s doing here musically, but it’s still an interesting and welcome surprise!
Deap Vally, Marriage– Now that kicks off with a crunching guitar and feedback start! A female rock duo from Los Angeles, sounding exactly like a female rock duo from Los Angeles should. They do fast, they do slow, they do mid-tempo, and they’re gloriously menacingly rocking the whole time.
Deerhoof, Actually, You Can– I do love me some Deerhoof! Reville and Apple O are two of my favorite albums of the 00s, and I’ve seen them live several times, which has never been less than great. The opening song is about vegetables and a refrigerator, and every song sounds like a power-pop song exploded and was reassembled. This is lacking some of the surging moments and structural unity of their best albums, but is a pretty worthy outing, all in all.
DMX, Exodus 1:7– The other of the two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have in this list. RIP DMX. This starts off muscular and menacing. Then is, by turns, a flashback to late 90s/early 2000s hip-hop, spiritual, and a considered meditation on age and parenthood. A tour de force, and fitting final testament.
Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg– This UK band sounds like they’re doing a conscious throwback to/revival of the angular and nervy early era of post-punk. And they do it very well! The musical side of it is excellent and the dry spoken word vocals of vocalist Florence Shaw are a great bonus touch to top things off.
Ducks Ltd., Modern Fiction– This sounds like some hi-energy alt 80s jangle pop. That, and the name, are both good ways to dispose me favorably. A bit of a time capsule sound from this Toronto band, but darned if it isn’t well done!
Elvis Costello, Spanish Model– I do like an unusual album concept, and this surely is one- the original masters of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, only with the lead vocals removed, and various Latin American musicians doing lead vocals in Spanish. Costello himself is backing this project, and the results are pretty inspired- it reminds you how strong the original tracks were musically, and the variety of vocal approaches to the material takes things off in whole new directions. Call me crazy, but this works!
Eris Drew, Quivering in Time– What do you do if you’re holed up in a log cabin in New Hampshire during plague times? If you’re DJ and producer Eris Drew, you mix together this very fine house/electronic album. Electronic music is often a tough sell for me, but this is so full of energy, and a wit in production that moves it dynamically forward while the trance of the beats pulls you hypnotically under that I never even thought about touching that dial. Or clicking that mouse, as it were.
For Those I Love, For Those I Love– This is kind of fascinating, a varied and interesting electronica background, thickly accented spoken word vocals, and sometimes searingly personal lyrics. Irish producer and songwriter David Balfe produced this response to losses throughout his life, including the 2018 suicide of his long-time friend and musical partner Paul Curran, and Dublin’s struggles as well. It’s powerful.
Foxx Bodies, Vixen– Oh, help me. It’s that band! Punky. Poppy. Heavy crunching guitars, but with melody. Female lead with a strong presence. They’re from Los Angeles in this case, seem to have been kicking around since 2016, and do a very high level of engaging gender politics along the way. What’s not to love?
GA-20, Try It… You Might Like It! GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor– GA-20 are a band of blues revivalists from Boston, and in this album are covering songs by 70s Chicago bluesman Hound Dog Taylor. The sound leans toward the electric, rocking, chaotic side of blues, and I love just about every second of it. This is one of those recordings that reminds you how vital the blues can still be.
Goat Girl, On All Fours– If I had to think of two words to describe this album from British group Goat Girl (which, despite the name, seems to be all human women and not fantastic hybrids) it would be “lush” and “hypnotic”. Musically, it’s a combination of instrumental rock and electronic rock, fused together by strong production and a knowing way with melody. And the vocals are clear and powerful.
Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate– Why lovingly recreate a 70s hard rock sound? Why not! The thing is, it’s done so well, with such sincerity, that it doesn’t sound like a knock-off, but a genuinely new album from that era that somehow just popped into contemporary existence. It will be fascinating to see how this group develops over time.
Guided by Voices, It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!– This is the second Guided by Voices album of the year, and, as is their wont, sounds different from the other one, and sounds excellent. This one is more in an early 70s prog/psychedelic groove, with enough guitar in a punk/80s alt vein to keep it moving. I thought Earth Man Blues was more solid all the way through, but this outing is also worthy.
Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes– Several pop country stars hang out together on a porch in West Texas and record what they get up to, and it’s better than anything on pop country radio. There’s a lesson here! The songs are stripped down (including talk between takes, mistakes, and background noise, almost like demos really), honest, and shine like gold.
James McMurty, The Horses and the Hounds– This folk/rock/alt country veteran from the 80s brings stripped down music, ragged vocals, and lyrics that are so sincere and on-point that they’re almost klunky (but in a charming way). He tells impossible not to visualize stories here in the way that country excels at, and the music is rock-country heartland solid.
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales– This album is a musical tour de force with the mix of R&B and hip-hop stylings, vocally dynamic, and, beneath a shiny pop veneer, a nuanced and at times quite personal exploration of female empowerment and both resistance to and complicity with hip hop culture’s misogyny.
Jerry Douglas/John Hiatt/The Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings– By turns rollicking, relaxed, and tender, this music lives at the intersection of rock, blues, and country. Hiatt’s voice is just the right kind of finely aged to fit with this and make it feel utterly authentic. You may hear echoes of Dylan, Springsteen, the more wistful edges of Outlaw Country, and even, I swear, Carl Perkins here. None of it is derivative though, that’s just the mythic space this album is inhabiting.
Juan Wauters, Real Life Situations– This Uruguayan musician living in New York City took advantage of COVID confinement to produce a mix of slice of life sound samples, hip-hop, electronic dance music, acoustic, latin pop, and jazz. The whole musical package, along with lyrics in English and Spanish, creates a very listenable urban pastiche of exactly what the title is promising.
Juliana Hatfield, Blood– I really like Juliana Hatfield, and I’m also required by law to like smart, angsty, fuzz-guitared 90s songstresses in general. She’s never not had an edge, but this is nasty in a sharp-tongued kind of way, and hilarious. The lyrics feel a little too topically on the nose sometimes, but that’s a minor nit to pick with this solid outing.
Karen Peris, A Song Is Way Above the Lawn– Speaking of 90s songstresses… This album by Innocence Mission alumni Peris is meant to be a children’s album, but it works for adults. In fact, it’s exactly those aspects that might make it work for children- a kind of lyrical naiveté, a fable-like quality, a straightforward even somewhat bare musical and vocal presentation, that makes it so affecting. It feels a little like a haunted fairy tale.
Kate Davis, Strange Boy– So, I’m kind of in love with this album. Kate Davis, apparently, is a pop and jazz singer-songwriter who is now on her fifth album, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s Retired Boxer. Johnston himself was an outsider musician who’s stripped down approach to music came out of his own experience with mental illness. Somewhere between the quirky charm of the original material and her talented interpretation- her lackadaisical vocals synch perfectly with the lo-fi music- this is just great.
Krolok, Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky– If you tell me you’re a Slovakian black metal band, I’m always going to want to hear what you have to say next. As it turns out, I really did! This sounds, and I mean this in the very best way possible, like a metal band did a Halloween album for a vampire theme park. Musically, they pulled off something that bands like this often have a hard time with, bridging the looming atmospheric parts with the more straightforward metal parts. Lyrically, I barely caught a word, but I feel like every word penetrated my soul. Easily one of my favorite metal albums of the year.
La Femme, Paradigmes– I mean, it’s much more than half in French, but it’s so swinging and hi-energy and musically dynamic that I can’t help it!
Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club– The subtlety of the first track alone is breathtaking. Throughout, the music is restrained, even minimal, but there’s such honesty and authenticity in the vocals, and her voice itself is an instrument. All of this supports, as per her usual, sophisticated lyrics. It’s not quite in the league of her other release from the year, Blue Banisters, but it’s powerful!
Lil Nas X, Montero– Given the hubbub that’s been generated around Lil Nas X, I was certainly curious about his first full-length album. This heightened expectation game can go two ways- but in this case, BELIEVE the hype. In its playing with higher callings and lower pulls, playful musical experimentation, and lyrical wit, this album reminds me of Prince. The transparent and prominent discussion of gay identity, relationships, and eroticism, rare not just in hip-hop but in mass-market pop music in general, is great. It even employs autotune to good effect- as a production tool rather than a crutch. In general, this album is thoroughly conversant with, and yet rises above, 2000s hip-hop idioms. Pretty great all around.
Lilly Hiatt, Lately– I have a friend who is a big John Hiatt fan, and, under her influence, I am learning to significantly appreciate him. So I was naturally curious to see what his daughter Lilly was up to. It turns out that she’s up to making a really good country-themed album, with great playing, powerful vocals, and just the right mix of verve with respect for traditionalism.
Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert– Sometimes (often) I might be too, so I like the title! And boy does this album by a UK hip-hop artist/actress get off to a booming operatic start. She’s vocally powerful enough to keep up with the music too, and subsequent tracks are full of great production, intelligence, wit, positive energy, and strong presence.
Lord Huron, Long Last– I’ve been curious about this Lord, and his great lakey realm, for a while. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this was a very welcome surprise- country inflections with that spooky minor chords sound, sometimes in a downright cowboy ballad vein, but with a heartfelt genuine air. There’s even a framing device for the album that works. It was all superb, and was headed toward being in the 21 best until a 14-minute ambient track at the end. Alas!
Lucy Dakus, Home Video– Produced with dark musical tones and vocals with trace of haunting, this meditation on adolescent experiences in the shadow of a strong church upbringing is arresting. It reminds me of the kind of interior work Sufjan Stevens does. I sometimes wondered whether it was too similar musically track to track, but it also never let go of my attention.
Mae Powell, Both Ways Brighter– Bright melodic music, stripped down almost naïve vocals, charming and intelligent lyrics painting vivid pictures. There is nothing here not to like. For me personally, the San Francisco references are a nice plus too!
Margo Cilker, Pohorylle– Oregon-based Margo Cilker cut her teeth playing covers of Creedence, Dylan, and Neil Young before touring extensively on her own material. She clearly learned the craft, with dense story songs, a voice that never sounds false, and a sure feel for country-tinged Americana. There’s also some excellent use of the word “fuck”, and even when a song gets a little polemical it never sounds less than achingly sincere.
Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn– Many an artist has done a moving, even heart-rending, post-divorce album, but few find the subject matter so suitable to their native talents. I’ve loved Martha Wainwright since her 2005 debut album, and the reason why is amply on display here. Rich music, yearning vocals, and lyrics that are genuine, bitter, and hopefully vulnerable all at the same time.
Matthew E. White/Lonnie Holmes, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection– This is a powerful melding of funk, jazz, and electronic beats from Virginia musician Mathew E. White, with vocals that are in turns growling and poetic from 71 year-old multi-media artist Lonnie Holley. I’ve noticed that these kinds of collaborations between artists can be either ponderous or magic. This one is magic- revelatory, challenging, but always interesting and listenable. I didn’t hear anything else like it this year.
Meatbodies, 333– Oh guitars. Wall of guitars. Every time I hear you anew I’m reminded of how much I love you. From this LA area band, I hear hints of grunge, Zeppelin, Jesus & Mary Chain, psychedelia. This gives you some idea of what you’re in for here. And I really like being in for this kind of thing!
Mon Laferte, 1940 Carmen– The second album out from this Chilean songstress this past year. It is just so darn pretty, and her voice is stunning. It also has a mix of Spanish and English, and dips into pop styles of the 60s, making it more accessible (to me, anyway) than her earlier in the year all-Spanish album which focused on Mexican folk music.
Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air– Moor Mother is the stage name of Camae Ayewa, an American poet, musician, and activist from Philadelphia. With a trippy poetic spoken word start, weirdly syncopated instrumentation and electronic sound effects, it doesn’t sound like everything else. A truly winning outing of left field hip hop and experimental electronic music with dense powerful poetic lyrics.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, The Future– On the first track this Denver-based singer-songwriter seemed to be channeling late 60s/ early to mid 70s Bob Dylan, which is a great way to get my attention. Subsequently, though, he proves to be doing a romp all through the Americana and R&B of that era. And he does it very well! Does it feel a little like a museum piece? Yes. But a flawless and sincere one!
Naytronix, Other Possibilities– The first track is like space jazz playing with a radio tuning dial, the second has what sounds like an electric xylophone intro, the next is like AM radio gold being played on an 80s synth keyboard, and so on. That’s the musical side, the lyrical side is full of longing, and the vocals are heavy on melody with an occasional side trip into gonzo distortion. Naytronix is the solo musical project of Nate Brenner, who is also a member of the band tune-yards whose album Sketchy. I was very favorably impressed with earlier this year. As for this album, I think it literally delivers on the promise of its title, introducing an array of sonic possibilities.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage– The dark hypnotic power of the opening track pretty much had me, and it didn’t let up from there. Cave’s darkling imaginings are well-supported here by the brooding music and its eerie flourishes. Poetic, beautiful, and often heartbreaking.
Nicole Atkins, Memphis Ice– North Carolina-based self-professed purveyor of “pop noir” Nicole Atkins recorded this album in Memphis, and it feels like an excellent merger of her lush pop vocal style and the 60s soul Memphis sound.
Night Beats, Outlaw R&B– I love the idea that the album name brings to mind- an R&B equivalent of Outlaw Country. I wouldn’t quite say it’s delivering that, but it is an R&B brimming with a feeling of 60s rock- I hear some Beatles in there, some Who, some Cream, some Del Shannon. There’s even a spooky gunfighter ballad and a garage rock banger that sneaks in to the mix from somewhere. This was just great, a thoroughly enjoyable turn from this Texas band.
Papur Wal, Amser Mynd Adra– Driving upbeat rock with great hooks and a pop feeling. A lot of the album is in Welsh, which definitely is a barrier to my understanding, but the music is so darn accessible!
Pip Blom, Welcome Break– This Dutch band knows how to do a poppy, high-energy rock song, and I like the earnest straightforwardness of leader Pip Blom’s vocals. Is it super-profound? Probably not. But it is super-fun, and flawlessly executed. And okay, yes, I’m a sucker for a guitar-crunching, female-led band. So sue me!
Pokey LaFarge, In the Blossom of Their Shade– Vocal pop with country, 50s rock, swing, ska, and Latin sounds in the mix. This description is true, but I think it undersells how delightful the combination of this, and his plaintive croon, is. This is some really excellent music.
Pom Poko, Cheater– Discordant, but high on melody. Quirky. Clever. This is from the school of post-pock that still knows what makes a perfect pop-rock song, but has blown up the formula and beautifully reconstructed the pieces (think Deerhoof). Also, they’re Norwegian, which may have something to do with it.
R.A.P. Ferreira, The Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures– Rory Allen Philip Ferreira is an American rapper and producer from Kenosha, Wisconsin. On this album he brings vivid, poetic, spiritually-infused vocal flow with relaxed beats and some spare jazz-inflected background. It might be hard to keep this going for an hour, but at a half-hour run time, it never flags for a moment.
Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths– This feels like an album lost in time. Multiple times, actually. You’ll hear traces of psychedelia, 80’s new wave/synthpop, and Industrial. It all adds up to surging atmospheric music. And, as the album name might lead you to expect, it’s also a high concept story album. This could all get out of hand, but it doesn’t, and it’s weirdly wonderful.
Remember Sports, Like a Stone– There’s this band I fall in love with every few years. The basic elements are: an all-female or 3/4 female band, real guitar rock with real drums, and punk power and verve but strong melody and pop sensibility. It has been, variously, the Skirts, the Bangs, the Soviettes, and Vancougar. This is that band. I’m in love! They should watch out, though, because my love-band inevitably seems to put out less than a handful of albums and breaks up before meeting with the reception they deserve. Alas!
Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son– This blues and soul veteran returned to recording in 2016 after a break of many years, and is here coming out with an album produced by the Black Keys. You might figure these would be the elements of excellence, and they gosh darn are. Muscular electric blues and soul.
Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic– Silk Sonic being a collaboration of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, you might be expecting some kind of invocation of 70s soul and funk. Hearing Bootsy Collins is involved with the album, you might expect that even more so. You would be exactly right, and it’s like glorious slow-pouring sonic gold.
Steven Wilson, The Future Bites– The mix of melody, samplings, and electronic dance music here brings to mind early 80s Peter Gabriel. It has a tendency toward the ethereal, but the dark bitterness of Wilson’s lyrics and more grating musical touches keep it grounded. All in all, very interesting!
TEKE::TEKE, Shirushi– Now this is suitably strange! A Japanese band who’s music is a mix of surf music, traditional forms, and psychedelia-flavored electronic. There’s the language issue, and the fact that it sometimes get a little too experimental, but on the other hand it’s a fun and interesting listen, and the experimentation goes somewhere.
Tele Novella, Merlynn Belle– Vocally charming, with clever clear lyrics, and it casts a spell. Is this a flamenco album? A sad country album? An outing from a twee singer songwriter? All yeses, and I love it!
The Bug, Fire– I mean, you start off with a narration about robots and prisoners, I’m intrigued. This is like heavy electronica, with a strong dub influence- stomping metallic beats, synthesizer as its own form of percussion, rapid-fire lyrics full of looming apocalypse. Excellent from start to finish.
The Coral, Coral Island– This album opens with one of those classic psychedelia spoken word intros. The jangly psychedelia-flavored indie rock that follows, and high concept travel narrative interludes throughout, show this is exactly what this English band is going for, and they deliver-flawlessly.
The Darkness, Motorheart– Hard rock and metal, in a gloriously trashy 80s vein. Some throwaway Star Trek references. Guitars, guitars, guitars! It’s kind of like this UK band received the instruction “make an over-the-top parody of this kind of music, except do it totally sincerely” and then brilliantly executed on that mission.
The Go! Team, Get Up Sequences Part I– So fun and energetic- it mixes full on indie rock in a synth/bedroom pop vein, 80s-flavored hip-hop, and what sometimes sounds like high school band practice. This is one of those albums where nothing else this past year sounded like it. And it’s delightful!
The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy– The Hold Steady’s ability to do storytelling in a song is really nonpareil. Except for, you know, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. So yes, you’ll hear echoes of them throughout, but never in a way that sounds like a mere copy. The music has complexity and variability, with power and swagger. They won me over on the first track, and never lost me from there.
The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times– Obviously, the band name is great, and the album name is hopeful. The even better news is that this Indiana country-blues band delivers with a set of rocking hi-energy blues songs. Every last track is solid fun!
TisaKorean, mr.siLLyfLow– The fresh sound directions from this this Houston rapper, producer, and dancer include soundtrack and cartoon sampling, gonzo vocal flow, and hilarious lyrics. Also, some of the sound effects made my dog bark fitfully. It doesn’t always feel like it fully fits together, but it’s all great. Dog and man recommend!
Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: Forevermore– The phrase “Progressive Rock Supergroup”, frankly, should set off alarm bells. And then the fact that the album is an hour and a half long? One should be running for the hills. It’s an interesting story, though. Faced with a dispute over whether to release a double-album or something more streamlined, the principals of the band decided- Why not both?!??! The shorter version isn’t simply a selection of songs from the longer album though- each was independently produced, so the same song on each can sound quite different. This is the longer version (I did review the shorter version but didn’t like it as well), and it’s pretty amazing. It feels like the high point of 70s Prog Rock/concept albums resurrected itself, in a way that’s simultaneously familiar but fun, and, for lack of a better word, friendly. Against all likelihood, I wanted every minute of the whole hour and a half.
Volbeat, Servant of the Mind– “Scandinavian rock band” is one of my happy places, so hearing they were Danes favorably pre-disposed me. Seeing them described as playing a fusion of rock, metal, and rockabilly further piqued my interest. In practice they’re also pretty darn fun. Is it a little formulaic? Yes. Is the more than hour run length a concern for me? Also yes. But it is so gleefully and sincerely delivered- a rocking good time that isn’t trying to do anything more than that- that it works from start to finish.
Wesley Stace, Late Style– This is groovy! It’s got smooth vocals, lyrics that work with the jazz-influenced music, a somewhat schmaltzy yet mysteriously still cool delivery, and songs that are clever, topical, and have a dark undertone under a cheerful delivery. It reminded me, in turns, of Randy Newman and Elvis Costello. What I subsequently discovered is that Wesley Stace is the English singer/songwriter who goes by the name John Wesley Harding, which makes even more sense in terms of why I like this so much, having admired Harding’s work since the 80s.
Willow, Lately I Feel EVERYTHING– This was much rockier than I was expecting. “Rocking” somewhat from a young Taylor Swiftian kind of direction, but full of attitude and musical verve. And sometimes coming in from metal and even Bikini Kill territory, with R&B and hip-hop dashes along the way. Well done young Willow!
And that is it, my friends. The 21 best albums of 2021, and 79 honorable mentions. If you’d like it in list-only form for reference, we can accommodate that:
If you find yourself going in to album-review withdrawal with the ending of this series, fear not! I’m thinking of doing a follow-up post comparing my list to what the critics came up with as their favorites for the year. And there’s a rumor afoot that I may do this again for 2022…
It’s our final monthly review! Almost a year ago, as part of an effort to catch up on newer music, I set out to find the 21 best albums of the year by listening to new releases each month, and sorting them into yes/maybe/no. And here we are, the last month, after which I’ll do a final shakedown to get the 21 best albums of 2021.
If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I did this past year. The final installment of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s is here, and the wrap-up of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.
Before we wrap up December, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. There are now 244 albums on the list, so every final victor will have dispatched a host of foes.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
Now, on with the review of 55 December new releases!
Common, A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2– Part 2 to this hip-hop stalwart’s 2020 Part 1. On the musical side it’s dynamic and jazzy, the flow is muscular, it’s brimming over with positive message, and the whole has a sense of unity. Because of the comparison effect it’s not easy to clear the bar at this point in the year, but this absolutely does it!
Curren$y, Pilot Talk 4– Strong clear beats backing a jazzy swirl with some pleasing flow. The street talk isn’t always the freshest ever, but the deeper meditations on the downsides of street life, and the so well done musical and vocal backing elevate it. This New Orleans rapper has apparently been prolific as hell this year, and this shows it has been to good effect.
Don Trip, Pray God’s Not Watching– In a way, this album dives deep into hip-hop album theme cliches. But this pioneer of the Memphis scene brings a smooth spare mix, wit, and presence All that, and the strong storytelling of the vocals and lyrics really carries it through. And the ending is an unvarnished heart-tugger.
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales– This is not a December release, but both NPR and Pitchfork had it at the top of their pre year-end Top 50 lists. Not sure how it slipped through my net earlier, but I figured I should give it a listen! I’m glad I did, it’s a musical tour de force with the mix of R&B and hip-hop stylings, vocally dynamic, and, beneath a shiny pop veneer, a nuanced and at times quite personal exploration of female empowerment and both resistance to and complicity with hip hop culture’s misogyny.
Krolok, Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky– If you tell me you’re a Slovakian black metal band, I’m always going to want to hear what you have to say next. As it turns out, I did. This sounds, and I mean this in the very best way possible, like a metal band did a Halloween album for a vampire theme park. Musically, they pulled off something that I find bands like this often have a hard time with, bridging the looming atmospheric parts with the more straightforward metal parts. Lyrically, I barely caught a word, but I feel like every word penetrated my soul. Easily one of my favorite metal albums of the year.
Mach-Hommy, Balens Cho– This album is much like his Prayer for Haiti earlier this year. But whereas the sprawl of that got away from me, this was much more focused, and musically rich, lyrically challenging, and well structured. That’s how you album!
Michael Hurley, The Time of the Foxgloves– Hurley has been playing folk music since the Greenwich Village scene in the 60s. Every note of this sounds with the beautifully burned-out music veteran power you would expect from that.
Nicole Atkins, Memphis Ice– North Carolina-based self-professed purveyor of “pop noir” Nicole Atkins recorded this album in Memphis, and it feels like an excellent merger of her lush pop vocal style and the 60s soul Memphis sound.
Ryan Sambol, Gestalt– There’s a gruffness in the vocals, a weariness in the lyrics, and a spirit of variety in the music that I find very appealing. Acoustic, blues, country and lo-fi indie all get mixed up in this album from a Texas-raised singer-songwriter and poet. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
Speedy Ortiz, The Death of Speedy Ortiz & Cop Kicker…Forever– Does a remix of two old albums from 2011 plus eight new songs=something new? I hope so, because the guitar crunch and fuzz, layers of sound, and thick vocals and sharp lyrics of this Massachusetts band led by Sadie Dupuis have utterly charmed me.
Bat Fangs, Queen of My World– Do you know how much I appreciate jumping in at full rock from the first note? I appreciate it a lot! This whole thing is steeped in the brighter side of 80s hard rock and hair metal, but with two female principles. This works well, they deliver flawless cock rock but without the downsides of cock attitude. The only reason it didn’t hit “yes” is that the vocals were a little flat, production-wise. It would have been nice to hear them cut loose a little more!
Biffy Clyro, The Myth of the Happily Ever After– “Scottish band” just inherently makes me happy, and “Scottish band formed in the 90s” is a further booster from there. There’s no denying that this is high energy, and has a considerable spark of something musically and lyrically. It’s a little prefab sounding, but it’s a good fab.
Bitchin Bajas, Switched On Ra– “Psych rockers cover cosmic jazz legend Sun Ra with vintage 70s synthesizers” is actually a pretty decent way to get my attention as far as album concepts go. There are multiple things here that aren’t usually my bag, and there’s one vocal guest track that feels totally out of tone with the rest, but darned if it doesn’t create some really fun and interesting soundscapes.
Charlotte Greve, Sediments We Move– Sometimes surging with power and feeling, but sometimes more on the ethereal side of classical/jazz/experimental mixes. There are definitely some interesting approaches here, but perhaps a little uneven in terms of energy/engagement to completely work as an album. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Jeff Tweedy, Live is the King– Live versions of his 2020 release Love is the King. That album was thoroughly on the country side of Tweedy’s work, and these live versions are too. I’m in kind of a conundrum with this- the material is great, and the versions are very good. But it’s not very “live”- it was recorded live in studio, so there’s no audience feedback, no interactions between musicians on the stage, etc. So what (besides a nice Neil young cover) does this really do to go beyond the original album?
JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing– This album is the philosophical flow of an ongoing thesis about Blackness in America ranging from history and literature to modern pop culture and everything in-between. That general focus is anchored by his specific meditations on music, and his own personal experience with his lifelong stutter (which he works in to the lyrics and music in various ways). All this is accompanied by clear beats and the light touch of smartly deployed electronic keyboard surges. It’s really pretty amazing, about my only reservation is a long low-music lull in the middle.
Mo Troper, Dilettante– This starts off as rock with the appropriate amount of feedback and chaos, and then keeps going. It could get bogged down, but the fact that there are 28 songs in 49 minutes keeps it moving along. The variety of modes does as well- it explores multiple varities of 80s alt and 90s indie. Some songs are noise pop, some more traditionally melodic, some thoroughly tongue in cheek if not slightly snotty. The pacing occasionally gets a little uneven, and the songs also sometimes sound very young. Put that’s where the zeal and the noise come from too! A worthy outing from this Portland band. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Neil Young & Crazyhorse, Barn – All right, let’s start with the necessary disclaimer- Neil Young is on my all-time musical top five list. I’m never going to not react well to his work. I also like the extra musical oomph Crazy Horse gives him. In fact, this album has all the Neil Youngs- slow balladeer, saw-toothed feedback-laden guitar rocker, stirring anthemist, sometimes overly on-the-nose lyricist. It doesn’t feel like it quite comes together with a strong theme musically or lyrically though, which is what separates it from “great” versus merely “good”.
Pearly Gate Music, Mainly Gestalt Pornography– Pearly Gate Music is the brainchild of Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter Zach Tillman, the brother of Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty). Solid guitar rock on the acoustic side, with bright chords and arch lyrics. This feels like something I could have run into in the 80s on a college radio station. I’m not convinced it adds up to something strong/different enough to get to “yes”, but it does what it does very well.
Tasha, Tell Me What You Miss the Most– Chicago singer-songwriter Tasha has delivered a set of torchy emotional songs with an acoustic vibe, and her voice is strong and clear. The material in a way is simple and often low-key, but the feeling is so genuine, the content gets the emotions of romance right, and the presentation is very appealing. We could all do worse!
Volbeat, Servant of the Mind– “Scandinavian rock band is one of my happy places, so hearing they were Danes favorably pre-disposed me. Seeing them described as playing a fusion of rock, metal, and rockabilly further piqued my interest. In practice they’re also pretty darn fun. Is it a little formulaic? Yes. Is the more than hour run length a concern for me? Also yes. But it is so gleefully and sincerely delivered- a rocking good time that isn’t trying to do anything much more than that.
Aeon Station, Observatory– It’s a fine moody synthy indie rock outing. I have probably heard a few dozen this year that were no better or no worse than this.
Alicia Keys, Keys– This double album is beautiful like Alicia Keys so often is. The first side is, as she describes it, her “classic” sound, the second is “Unlocked”, doing the same songs but expressing herself in new/different ways.I was definitely more grabbed by that second half. Because of the sprawl and lack of focus I don’t think it works as an album, but that’s not to say there isn’t a ton of great material in it.
Arca, Kick iiii– Arca is a Venezuelan musician, singer, composer, record producer, and DJ, based in Barcelona who has released four, count them, four, albums in December! If you like your electronic music danceable, weird, with an edge of discord and dread, this might be for you. I do like those things, though ultimately there wasn’t enough consistent substance musically or lyrically for me to really sink my teeth into.
Arca, Kick ii– If you listen to Kick iiii first, you may, as I did, wonder how much different Kick ii will be. As it turns out, it was quite a bit different! I don’t know if it was the Latin influence, the comparatively smoother mix, or the greater sonic unity it had, but I liked it quite a bit better. It was well on its way to maybe until an extended dissonant weird-out in the middle.
Arca, Kick iii– Okay, not so much on iiii, ii fared much better, how will iii do? Turns out, it’s kind of a bridge between the weird and discordant iiii and the Latin-themes and club smoothness of ii. I don’t feel like it totally comes together, but I have been having a kick with all the Kicks. So to speak.
Arca, Kick iiiii– If you listen to ii, iii, and iiii, how are you not going to listen to iiiiI? (For those wondering, Kick i came out last year, which is why we’re not listening to it as part of this batch.) This is easily the most ambient trending of the four. I have trouble latching on to ambient.
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jules Buckley/Paul Weller, An Orchestrated Songbook– This is Weller doing versions of his song backed by BBC Symphony. It’s an interesting form of career retrospective, and some of the covers are quite amazing and really showcase a mature power that matches what’s always been the high ambition of his work. It of course doesn’t sound bad, it’s the BBC Symphony Orchestra for pity’s sake! And I certainly would recommend it for Weller fans, but I’m not sure it makes the leap from there to overall “year’s best”.
Benjamin Lazar Davis, Benjamin Lazar Davis– This is certainly high quality, and has a lyrical edge, but it’s a little too smoothly laden with all the 2000s production tricks to make enough emotional connection.
Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Keyboard Fantasies Reimagined– A rework of a classic 1986 instrumental keyboard album by contemporary artists. It’s a nice concept, and leads to some interesting results, but a little too abstract, and not coherent enough, to make a proper album.
Brian Wilson, At My Piano– Here Wilson is playing instrumental piano versions of his songs. It’s good, but a little, well, instrumental piano. Very much all in one vein, which is hard to make a full-length album work with. A Wilson and/or Beach Boys fan might well want to have this in their collection, though.
Chief Keef, 4Nem– It’s got some power and dynamism, but is it among the best albums I’ve heard this year? Is it even in the top ten hip-hop albums I’ve heard this year? 11 days left…
Craig Taborn, Shadow Plays– From a 2020 live European performance. This trended toward a muted, almost ambient end of jazz. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Darius Jones, Raw Demon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)– It starts with a horn like an enervated traffic jam. It upset my cat. The bunnies were not fans either.
Gas, Der Lange Marsch– Ambient to the point of being somnolent. Nyet.
Geese, Projector– I really like waterfowl. I also like the kind of young male rock that this New York band is doing, but it began to wear a little thin before the end. They went straight from high school to studio album, though, so definitely keep an eye on them and what they might grow into.
Jeff Parker, Forfolks– Some very nice jazz-influenced guitar, but as a pretty-mellow all instrumental, it never really cohered as an album for me.
Jeniveve, Division– It’s some good R&B/dance music, I can see what they mean by “underrated”. But year’s best? Competition is tough in these final days! (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
Juçara Marçal, Delta Estácio Blues– All Music Guide will tell you that, “Juçara Marçal is a Brazilian singer, songwriter, and educator whose music bridges traditional Afro-Brazilian folk sounds, electronic music, rock, and hip-hop.” I will tell you that, despite the complete language gap, the joyous kaleidoscope of styles and complexity of rhythms had this well on its way to being at least a strong maybe until a terribly autotuned track turned up toward the end. That may seem like a rough reason to bounce something, but we’re in December now- it’s wheat from chaff time!
Kenny G, New Standards– I didn’t really think I was going to go for this- as a kid of the alt 80s, if there is an anathema par excellence to my people, it’s Kenny G. I was intrigued by the concept though- it’s his attempt to record new songs as if they were old standards. Unfortunately, it sounds like Kenny G.
King Krule, You Heat Me Up You Cool Me Down– This album from a UK singer/songwriter, sometimes rapper, is from live shows just before the tour had to be cancelled because of COVID. I wasn’t familiar with him going in, but the music is a muscular mix of jangly rock, jazz, and surprising sound effects, and the vocals are raw and bruising, which I appreciate. It gets to be a little the same after a while, and the almost hour and twenty run time is a tough thing to sustain, but it does make me curious to hear more of his stuff.
Lotic, Water– This was very interesting as dance-oriented music goes, in a heavily experimental vein. Not consistently listenable enough to make “year’s best”, but certainly not unworthy.
Myriam Gendron, Ma délire– Songs of love, lost & found– Moody, French, quiet with dark jagged edges, but the language barrier is ultimately too much for me to “get” the album. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
New Found Glory, December’s Here– Christmas-themed albums are an inevitability this time of year. They can work, but they can also make my skin crawl. A pop-punk album with an emo bent is an inevitability in life. It can work, or it can make my skin crawl. Multiply one by the other, and your odds of success considerably decrease.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, La Panthère des Neiges (Original Soundtrack)– This is my favorite Nick Cave soundtrack for a documentary about a snow leopard. No really, this is the soundtrack to Marie Amguet and Vincent Munier’s wildlife documentary La Panthére des Neiges, in which Munier (a photographer) and writer Sylvain Tesson pursue a rare sighting of a snow leopard in Tibet. It’s a little muted musically, and not general audience enough to work as an album of the year, but yay leopards!
Quadry, They Think We Ghetto– Definitely fresher than many another hip-hop album out this year, but we’re late in the year now, so it takes a lot to rise above. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
Rival Consoles, Overflow– Electronic and experimental- some of these tracks have a sense of looming dread, which I always appreciate, and some have interesting thought-provoking verbal and sound juxtapositions. But it feels more like an art project, and less like something one would repeatedly listen to.
Robert Sotelo, Celebrant– It’s a little post-punk sounding, a little herky-jerky side of new wave, it’s more than nice enough, but it’s not enough to blow the rest of the year out of the water.
Roddy Richh, Live Life Fast– I was on the edge for a while. There is a good deal of higher aspiration in this album from Compton-based hip hop artist Richh, clever wordplay, and interesting music mixes. Eventually the misogyny and autotune got the better of me, but it stayed in contention for quite a while.
Rx Nephew, Transporter 4– Pitchfork recommended this album from an extremely prolific hip-hop artist to me. It’s powerful and driving, but I think it ultimately goes under with the weight of “street” clichés. He is from my wife’s mythical homeland of Rochester, NY, though, so there’s that.
SeeYouSpaceCowboy, The Romance of Affliction– Brutal hardcore/metal assault, which I appreciate. Dip into swelling symphonic melodies, which I tolerate. Screamed vocals, which I do not groove with.
Teen Daze, Interior– It’s electronic. It’s dancey. It’s nice enough. It’s late in the year.
Tony Shhnow, Authentic Goods– I can see what they mean in terms of it being underappreciated, but this is way late in the year. It takes not just good, but extraordinary to break into the list at this point. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
Wild Up, Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Feminine– California collective recording arrangements of songs from a Jazz great who died largely unsung (and too young) in the 90s. It was an interesting enough premise to get me listening, and there is something arresting about it, but given the instrumental and abstract nature, I’m not sure it’s accessible enough to rise to top spot of the year.
yes/and, yes/and– Some of these are ambient, some of these are more instrumental, all of them are a bunch of nice sounds that don’t add up to an album (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
And so, it is finished. Or not quite! As soon as I can manage it, I’m going to complete my relistens of the “Yes” (and selected “Maybe”) albums from the year and bring you the final list of THE 21 BEST ALBUMS OF 2021 Stay tuned!