The List 2022
At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.
- Ingrid Andress — Good Person
I don’t consider myself a country music fan. Perhaps the first significant crack in that wall was falling pretty hard for Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour in 2018, and there have certainly been country-inflected pop albums that have worked for me before and since. However, Ingrid Andress is perhaps the first artist to make my list whom it would be fair to label ’country‘, and yet even here I suspect that there are enough pop and folk elements, that hardcore genre sticklers wouldn’t consider it a purebred country record. Regardless, across a dozen simple compositions, Andress proves herself to be not only in possession of a rich, warm voice but also an impressive ear for memorable melodies. Title track and opener ’Good Person‘ is a heart-on-sleeve paean to personal character, so earnest that it feels astounding it hasn’t been done a thousand times before. Follow-up ’Yearbook‘ is a masterclass in sweet and sad storytelling. Then ’Seeing Someone Else‘ is an Olivia Rodrigo-style ’my ex is with someone who looks like me‘ sing-along, with a fun twist! And, speaking of last year’s List-topper, ‘Pain’ here sure sounds very close to Rodrigo’s ‘Traitor’, but has enough charm of its own so as not to feel entirely derivative.
It’s a surpassingly easy-going and consistent record; I often found myself wandering around humming ‘Feels Like This’ or ‘How Honest Do You Want Me To Be?’ until I had to put the album on for one more spin. This clarity and quality of songwriting is always going to work for me, whether you call it pop, country, or anything else.
- Tallies — Patina
Toronto four-piece Tallies were new to me this year, and had I encountered this record divorced of context I likely would have suspected it was from somewhere in the early or mid-90s. (The cover even seems to be a nod to 4AD output from the era, like Pixies, Belly, & Red House Painters.) Lightly-treated vocals across beds of layered, fuzzed guitars — it has the feel of vintage dream-pop, a sound that either had a resurgence this year, or which I became enamoured of in a new way. I have had flirtations before with artists like Beach House and Grizzly Bear, but Patina perhaps brings something to the mix that was missing for me: a sense of lightness, and maybe a poppier tint.
At 34 minutes and 9 tracks, there isn’t a great deal of variety here, but (this being their sophomore LP) Tallies have brought together a set of tracks that cohere as a sustained mood, into which it is a pleasure to immerse oneself. The compositions are restrained, relying more upon the shifting, shimmering production than on quiet-loud dynamics, to sustain attention. It’s a remarkably easy record to listen to, and yet — like many of those 90s progenitors — yields fruit when closer attention is paid. I need to go back and check out the debut, and I’ll be interested to see whether Tallies continue in this well-worn groove, or push their envelope on a follow-up.
- Nilüfer Yanya — PAINLESS
Nilüfer Yanya has a few releases under her belt at this point — including a pair of EPs, and a 2019 debut LP: Miss Universe — all of which flew under my (obviously poorly-tuned) radar. When the buzz around PAINLESS started to build this spring, it didn’t take very long for me to key into a record comprising a lot of sounds I have a history with. It’s an intriguing mix: downtempo, post-grunge-adjacent arrangements with the addition of prettier, poppier accents; a quasi-shoegazey gauze over the production, and a low key vocal style that ranges down to a rich bass. Whilst this particular fusion feels unique, it did call to mind the sonic worlds of artists like Jay Som & Bachelor, who have made top-five appearances on these lists in recent years.
Opener ‘the dealer’ rides a neat mix of strummed guitar and busy drums, with a bass-line that comes in to ground the choruses. It’s moody and assuredly composed, as is the next track: ‘L/R’, with its slower tempo and shifting vocal. ‘stabilise’ is one of the best Bloc Party songs of the year, and closer ‘anotherlife’ leaves the record on one of its sunnier notes.
Yanya ends 2022 with an appearance on Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement series. It’s a warm and intimate set that showcases the strong construction of these songs, and a welcome companion piece to a headphones-first record that has stuck with me throughout most of the year.
- Bloc Party — Alpha Games
Each time Arcade Fire put out a record, I go through a cycle wherein at first I feel underwhelmed, and then — after spending more time with the album — I come to better appreciate it. That pattern didn’t hold for me with this year’s Arcade Fire release (WE, which you won’t find on this list), but instead, I found myself doing the same dance with another album: the sixth from long-time favourites Bloc Party.
Each previous BP record has made a top-20 spot*, and in fact this is their first to drop outside of the top 10. As alluded to above, however, there was a stretch of several months following Alpha Games’ April release in which it wasn’t in contention at all. Only my enduring affinity for the band kept me returning to the album long enough for it to charm me.
I think part of this evolving response to the record is rooted in the extent to which the sound of Alpha Games represents a step back, to something closer to the sound of older Bloc Party records. I called 2016’s Hymns ‘quietly revolutionary’, whilst praising the new textures the band were playing with. The album before that — 2012’s Four — also felt like it had adjusted from the sound that had, until then, defined the band: it was more muscular and assertive. Alpha Games, then, was at first confusing given that it sounded to me more like the Bloc Party of 2008, than that of the past decade-plus. The reliance on more complex, syncopated drum sounds is stronger; there is a return to prominence for the guitar, which had taken something of a back-seat on Hymns. However, there is no avoiding the fact that 50% of the band’s personnel has changed since they last made music in this vein, and as such the sound is at once familiar and slightly altered.
It was only once I got past the mental stumbling block that all these comparisons represent, that I started to enjoy Alpha Games on its own merits. Then, it really opened up for me, and before long I found myself wondering why I once had a hard time with it. There’s a lot to enjoy in the driving rhythms of singles, ‘Traps‘ and ‘The Girls Are Fighting’; the restrained anger of the unhinged ‘Callum is a Snake’, with its borrowed garage drumbeat; and the softer, more upbeat ‘In Situ’. Some of my favourite moments, however, are the quieter ones. ‘Of Things to Come’ is grown from the same tree as one of my Bloc Party favourites: Intimacy closer ‘Ion Square’. And the final pair here — ‘If We Get Caught’ & ‘The Peace Offering’ — bring an otherwise quite frenetic record in for a graceful landing.
Where they go from here, I’m not sure. But, I do know I’ll be eager to go along for the ride.
* 4th in 2005; 8th in 2007; 3rd in 2008; 4th in 2012; 4th in 2016
- Horsegirl — Versions of Modern Performance
Here’s another album steeped in a sound from the 90s, but this time the influence is clearly from the likes of The Breeders and Sonic Youth. Indeed, Chicago’s Horsegirl supported Pavement on tour this year — no small feat for a three-piece whose members weren’t born when Slanted & Enchanted (1992) helped set the template for a certain strain of slacker indie rock.
On songs like ‘Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)’ and ‘World of Pots and Pans’ the group centres their knack for catchy tunes to shuffle your feet to, possibly with your chin on your chest. Opener ‘Anti-Glory’ and fellow single ‘Option 8’ are more upfront about their gifts of melody, both underpinned by strong percussion. Tracks such as ‘Live and Ski’ make excellent use of the group’s two-vocalists setup, and elsewhere the inclusion of instrumental caesura delights in the tone of guitars fed through warm and fuzzy effects pedals.
The re-emergence of these 90s sounds was notable for me this year. I mentioned Tallies’ reaching back to peak dream-pop; here Horsegirl are pulling from other 4AD artists, as well as those on Matador in the early part of that decade. And we’re not done yet. I don’t know if all this genuinely was part of a larger 90s resurgence, or whether I just got particularly nostalgic in ’22.
- Warpaint — Radiate Like This
Warpaint missed a spot on my list in 2010 only by virtue of how late I came to their debut: The Fool. I’ve enjoyed albums since then — particularly 2014’s self-titled record — but it was immediately apparent to me that Radiate Like This hits a new level, after a six-year hiatus. The band’s supremely laid-back strain of psychedelic indie rock, refined now to an unmistakable signature sound, is cut here with new touches. A programmed drum line or two, some R&B harmonies here & there, I’ll even allow the steel pan on ’Melting‘ — normally an instrument I would go out of my way to avoid. Faintly detectable trip-hop and lo-fi influences help refresh Warpaint’s ongoing project: a genre-blending exercise that is now more than a decade old. But, even as more prominent artists have begun working in similar borderlands, few have arrived at songs as polished and effortless-seeming as ‘Hard to Tell You‘ (which features the lightest touch of 80s synth), or ‘Stevie‘ — a potential radio hit if it were forced to dress up and dance to a higher tempo, but which here sounds like Sananda Maitreya on benzodiazepine.
The vocals remain one of the group’s strongest pulls: Kokal, Wayman, & Lindberg’s soft croons weaving amongst one another, perfect partners to the languid, hazy instrumentation. It’s a spell Warpaint have become increasingly adept at casting, and one which feels refined to me on Radiate Like This in a way that was promised as far back as their debut. At the centre of the record are a pair of songs (‘Trouble’ & ‘Proof’), which reach back more directly to The Fool, and in doing so call out a commendably subtle evolution in tone that might otherwise have gone undetected across the band’s decade-plus of releases.
- Beach Bunny — Emotional Creature
Chicago four-piece Beach Bunny hit the lofty heights of fourth on my 2020 list, with their debut: Honeymoon. It was my absolute pleasure this year, to discover that there was plenty more where those joyous nine tracks came from.
On first listen, there doesn’t appear to be anything very complicated here; this is just a group of people with a first-class ear for hook and melody, employing those talents through lightly-fuzzed guitar, bass, and simple, functional percussion. The production (by Sean O’Keefe) feels a little cleaner than on the first record, perhaps indicative of a little more money having been spent by the good folks at Mom+Pop (now also home to Tegan & Sara, which might make for a neat touring pair).
On further listens, however, it becomes clearer that — in keeping with that album title — there is not only variety to the emotions behind these songs (anxiety, passion, regret…), but also that the character of the songs themselves runs a wider spectrum than on their debut: punk-adjacent (‘Gone’) to acoustic folk-adjacent (‘Infinity Room’), and plenty of tones in-between. Throughout, however, the album’s core charm is another set of well-crafted singalongs at the poppier end of pop-rock. Records from this approximate continent of the musical map have been pushing my buttons for decades, which I think speaks to both the potency of the form, and Beach Bunny’s skill in capturing it.
- Yugen — You
This is the debut LP from Han Frissen working as Yugen. (His day job is running Dutch electronica label Konstrukt). Opening track ‘Resfeber’ serves as an exercise in mood-setting (complete with melodic flute), before ‘Toraberu’ begins to usher in a wider sonic palate for a record that pulls from multiple eras and subgenres of electronica, including reaching back to 90s sounds of which I’ve grown increasingly fond.
‘Seclusion’ stirs trip-hop elements in with breakbeat — a combination I would have raised an eyebrow at before I heard it, but which Frissen weaves into something either propulsive or a little maudlin, depending on whether you focus your attention on its dense arrangement of beats, or the slow waves of synth.
There are moments in which the beats are more rigorous, but the album never seeks to entirely shed its overall air of playfulness. Closer ‘Inves’, for example, begins as a somewhat strident march, before gentler, pastel-toned elements are brought forth in the mix to soften it, and a new balance is found.
I found the formula for this record to be magnetic: complex percussive arrangements, expertly wedded to expansive melodies. Yugen melds the two expertly, so as to bring forth a set of beautiful, subtle techno that made for some of my favourite headphone listening this year.
- Mall Grab — What I Breathe
As seriously as I take music, and as large a part of my life as it is, I’m still sometimes skeptical about the utility of sub-genre labels. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the digitisation of music, and particularly the advent of MP3s, brought about a previously unthinkable explosion in access to music, and thus any barriers previously gating exposure to even the most esoteric of sounds, evaporated. There’s a strong argument to be made, that a generation of musicians has now grown up entirely in a culture where every shade and strain of music enjoyed a level playing field. Yes, certain flavours of pop, hip-hop etc. still have the largest marketing budgets, and the most FM airplay. But, it’s only a matter of turning on one’s laptop or phone to access a whole world of sound. My thesis here — which I’m admittedly presenting solely on the basis of personal observation — is that sub-genres (and, arguably, genres themselves to an increasing extent) mean less now than they ever have, because an increasing number of artists feel free to ignore them, or work across them.
Depending on the whim of the staff, you might find Mall Grab’s debut LP in either the Dance, Electronic, or Techno sections of your local record store. First track ‘Hand in Hand Through Wonderland’ is a trance-adjascent piece centred on a pretty, chiming keyboard run, before ‘I Can Remember It So Vividly’ snatches the baton, and sprints with it. ‘Love Reigns’ is more-or-less straight house, with euphoric piano. Then, Turnstile’s Brendan Yates shows up to provide both screaming & soothing vocals on ‘Understand’ — a track which otherwise sounds more like Bicep. That’s a run down of less than 1/3 of the record, and I’m already dizzy. What follows touches neo-soul, grime, and pure club sounds, before late highlight ‘Metaphysical’ — a mélange of techno breakbeats and ominous synths — and ‘Lost in Harajuku’ ring things out more subtly.
All of which sounds as though the record could be an un-coordinated, directionless mess. Whatever magic Jordon Alexander is working in the tight production helps tie the thing together, and made it a giddily enjoyable experience for me from first spin.
- Amber Mark — Three Dimensions Deep
Released on 28 January, this debut LP from R&B / soul singer-songwriter Amber Mark is the longest standing record on this list. Since I first heard the opening salvo of ‘One’, eleven months ago, this was a strong contender, and it has only grown on me over time. The immediate allure was in poppier moments like the aforementioned ‘One’, on which Mark both sings soulfully and sing-raps her struggle with anger and insecurity. Follow-up ‘What It Is’ only further established this record’s many gifts: a bold neo-soul slide which makes the most of Mark’s impressive voice by layering it into the smoothest possible harmonies. The soulful ‘Most Men’ completes an opening trinity as strong as it is varied. But we’re only getting started. ’Healing Hurts’ cuts an R&B ballad with a pseudo-trap beat, for results far more compelling than that sounds; ‘Bubbles’ heads for the dance floor; elsewhere there are funk touches, blues samples, and lush string arrangements, all tied together by Mark’s supremely polished songwriting, and velvet vocals. ‘Softly’ even samples turn-of-the-millennium Craig David to charming effect!
But the honeyed pop that drew me is really only the first layer of what proves to be a deeper record. Repeated listens reveal the extent to which Mark is telling a story across the hour running time. In a rough three act structure, she maps a journey through grief, towards acceptance. It’s easy to miss when you’re swaying to the funk arrangements of ‘Foreign Things’, or late highlight ‘Bliss’, but this is the most assured of debuts: musically and thematically vibrant and ambitious.
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs — Cool It Down
A new Yeah Yeah Yeahs record was always going to get my attention. Their 2003 debut, Fever to Tell, was an absolutely central part of the vanguard of exciting records that defined the sound of rock music in the early 21st century (alongside fellow heavy hitters like The Strokes’ Is This It, Kings of Leon’s Youth & Young Manhood, The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells etc.). In my estimation, follow-up Show Your Bones (2006) was not only better, but elevated to the pantheon of my favourite rock albums. It was third on my list that year, and has had more staying power for me in the years since than has proven true of the album immediately ahead of it: Thom Yorke’s The Eraser — a record I still play, but which I wouldn’t consider myself passionate about.
YYYs have certainly fallen off for me since: 2009’s It’s Blitz was pretty good (but notably not good enough for a list spot); 2013’s Mosquito was largely forgettable — indeed, I don’t think I’ve played it in the last 9 years. All of which makes Cool It Down the most pleasant of surprises.
Surely it’s no coincidence that opener ’Spitting Off the Edge of the World’ sits atop the same drum beat that powered Show Your Bones’ opener ‘Gold Lion’. Here, however, it is both slower and more muted in the mix: a more relaxed, less bombastic heartbeat for a new YYYs sound.
Across a lot of different releases this year I noted a version of this slowing, along with an increased interest in dreamier, gauzier sounds. Dream-pop tones coloured several albums I enjoyed in 2022, but which didn’t end up making this list: shouts to SRSQ’s Ever Crashing, Jockstrap’s I Love You Jennifer B, and even Taylor Swift’s Midnights — all of which are playing with these colours to some extent. Overall, however, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ implementation — which reaches back to elements of their sound that have existed since they first arrived — worked on me like magic. Yes, it may be classifiable as a crime to have Nick Zinner (a genuinely top-tier guitarist) hardly pick up a guitar on this album, but Karen O’s vocal shines when surrounded by floating synths.
I certainly wouldn’t object if, next year, they followed it up with half an hour of pure garage rock, but in the here and now, Cool It Down really is something pretty special.
- Duval Timothy — Meeting With a Judas Tree
Earlier this year I found myself in a jazz rut, which in turn led me down a jazz rabbit hole. I had been enjoying Opening by the Tord Gustavsen Trio*, but no other 2022 releases had stuck for me. So, I started casting about for new sounds, and at some point my exploration landed upon the 2017 album Sen Am, by Duval Timothy — a startling construction of piano-first jazz, and ambience. I developed a mild obsession with the record’s idiosyncrasies, playing it so much that, when Timothy’s new LP arrived in November, I immediately found myself struck by both its similarities and its differences.
First, the similarities. Meeting With a Judas Tree contains sections that read as direct responses, or otherwise continuations, of pieces from the five-year-old Sen Am. (It should be said, there are several releases in between, which I have not yet taken the time to adequately explore (beyond a cursory listen to Timothy’s intriguing 2021 collaboration with pop / alternative singer-songwriter, Rosie Lowe), and so it’s quite possible this is a musical conversation Duval Timothy has been carrying on throughout his work.) The four note sequences that underpin opener ‘Plunge’, feel unmistakably like an evolution of the refrain that plays the same role on Sen Am’s first track ‘Whatsapp’; the older album’s ‘Ibs’ is reflected and refracted here on ‘Up’ — its joyful central melody re-situated amidst layers of effects, and treated audio samples.
This is one of the differences: a deepening (in places) of layers; an increased incorporation of field recordings, and looped elements, present on Sen Am but given new shapes here. Timothy’s own liner notes also speak to a variety of recording techniques. One, which I found interesting:
Recorded on different pianos, including an upright in Freetown that had lost the felt of its hammers due to the humidity creating a harpsichord-like sound as the raw wood hit the strings.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its relative delicacy, this was some of the most captivating music I heard all year, and certainly amongst the most beautiful. I was disappointed to miss the screenings of an accompanying short film at the ICA, but such mistakes are less likely to recur now that I’m officially hooked on every move Duval Timothy makes.
* indeed, it was one of the final shortlist of 35 records in contention for this list
- Dusky — Pressure
From memory, this may be the first straight-up garage record that has made one of these lists. I’ve certainly had albums from the dancier-end of the electronica spectrum before, but this is a thoroughbred. It’s also explicitly an exercise in revisiting an older sound, which is perfect for me as someone who remained largely oblivious to the charms of dance music until a decade into the 21st century.
Even so, the primary building blocks here are now familiar to me: 2-step drum patterns, 4x4 rhythms, and playful use of vocal samples. The treated vocals and warping bass of ‘Northbound’ always inspires an increase in volume, and the (admittedly somewhat risible) vocal interjections on ‘Bubblin’’ never fail to bring a smile to my face. In fact, joy — more than anything else — is what I associate with this record. From the very first time I played it, dancing around my living room in the dark, it was a lock for this list. Its charms have not faded in the months since. When the bass kicks in on ‘Rollers’, followed by the vocal, and a chiming flourish that sounds like it could belong to a 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog game, catch me vibing!
- Brainwaltzera — ITSAME
Here, across 17 tracks and 74 minutes, the pseudonymous producer behind the Brainwaltzera alias lays out a banquet of sound which feels coherent and focussed despite its scope. ITSAME is defined by its meticulous arrangements of crisp, skittery beats and stuttering rhythms, and the interplay between those components and the frequent use of bright, warm chords.
Elements sit on a spectrum from the brief, light raindrops of ‘F1 Halo’, and the gentle melody atop ‘Morning Narcomnastics’, to the frenetic popcorn beat that rises and falls away on tracks like ‘A Star is Bored’ and ’medal headz (G.B.D.F.)`. The record as a whole is a melting pot of styles and sounds, but in an arrangement that always feels as though it’s restlessly pushing for something new. Album highlight ‘Fwd: Re: late (Ref.: karoshi)’ is a six-minute simulacra of the LP: opening on moody chords, it introduces a tangle of synths, then an active, evolving percussive backbone. The wave crests with a moment of relative stillness, before the latter half reconsiders the relationships between now-familiar components. This is a generous and wide-ranging set of electronica with a playful sense of both space and density.
- Bonobo — Fragments
On his seventh LP for Ninja Tune, Simon Green has pulled together an exceptionally well-crafted array of low-key techno, as warm and inviting as almost any record I played this year.
Opener ‘Polyghost’ is an introductory swell built from harp and strings, before the pulse of ‘Shadows’ arrives. That track showcases a tender vocal by Jordan Rakei atop a simple, clean percussion and continued strings. Elsewhere, ‘Otomo’ has some bombast, and makes admirable use of bagpipes — (like steel pan) an instrument I usually limit my exposure to when possible. ‘Age of Phase’ displays some urgency whilst underpinned by bright chords. ‘Tides’ is measured, whilst allowing Jamila Woods’ simple, honest, and expressive vocal room to breathe. And late highlight ‘Sapien’ brings in choppy synths and frenetic 90s percussion.
The album’s composition is primarily subtle techno, with warm orchestral adornment, and down-tempo R&B accents. For me, it’s working in a similar space to SBTRKT’s Wonder Where We’ll Land, which took third on my 2014 list. Like that album, it’s an immensely polished artefact, and — Apple Music informs me — my most-played album of 2022. Multiple tracks, such as ‘Rosewood’ — which exudes warmth & comfort — and ‘Elysian’ — a beautiful, characterful instrumental — conjure worlds of sound I gladly returned, time and again, to immerse myself in.
- Tove Lo — Dirt Femme
Now here’s a record that immediately announced itself as a strong list contender from play number one. First track, ‘No One Dies From Love’, is one of the year’s best opening statements: an anthem awash with 80s-inspired synth tones, propulsive percussion, and striking, layered vocals. Then, Lo immediately complicates the emotional tone of the record by sequencing ‘Suburbia’ next: a darker flavour of pop, more forthright in tone, in which she rejects the natalist assumption that her new marriage will immediately result in children. Taken together, these two tracks serve as a good microcosm of an album that consistently finds Tove Lo exploring various aspects of her femininity, whilst — it should be made clear — having a lot of fun doing so.
Album highlight ‘2 Die 4’ is centred around a goosebump-inducing interpolation of Gershon Kingsley’s ‘Popcorn’ (1969) — its an irresistible infusion of joyful trance, and one of my tracks of the year. Elsewhere ‘True Romance’ builds into one of 2022’s most stirring vocal performances; ‘Grapefruit’ is a vulnerable reflection on eating disorders, wrapped in more anthemic 80s synth; and ‘Cute & Cruel’ calls in assistance from First Aid Kit for a slice of grade-A folk balladry.
Some reviews of the record lamented the fact that Lo’s first outing as an independent artist eschews much of the more overt, confrontationally sexual leanings of her output on four previous albums for a major label. (There is still a song (‘Pineapple Slice’) entirely about cunnilingus.) For me, there’s a sense that this is Lo feeling more mature, less pressed to court notoriety, and more firmly in control of what her music should sound like. The result is an embrace of throwback pop sounds, and a record that is both unflinchingly honest, and unfailingly fun.
Side note: I would like to take this space to note that my 21st-favourite record of 2022 is by another pansexual Swede named Tove. HARD by (
- Black Thought & Danger Mouse — Cheat Codes
Danger Mouse hit my radar in 2003: I had a lot of fun with Ghetto Pop Life, the album-length collaboration he did with Jemini, and I can still hear ‘The Only One’ in my head as I type this, despite having not played it in probably a decade or more. The following year, The Grey Album — his mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003) with The Beatles’ 1968 ‘white album’ — was an ‘acquire these MP3s by any means necessary’ treat.
Black Thought I knew from his work with The Roots (2002’s Phrenology remains a favourite), but I was (shamefully) less familiar with his solo work.
In combination here, they’ve produced a soulful masterwork of low-key hip-hop. Danger Mouse’s beats pull from mid-century sounds — not just classic soul and funk, but psychedelia and progressive rock — lending the production a compelling off-kilter edge. Over this strange landscape of distorted organs, altered strings, and often muffled percussion, Black Thought delivers a masterclass in easy flow and scalpel-sharp wordplay.
There are variations in the production, such that opener ‘Sometimes’ and single ‘Aquamarine’ (which I think is sampling Garbage) feel expansive, whereas ‘Close to Famous’ feels like a straight-to-tape tirade as it rides an uneasy blues beat, and (another single) ‘No Gold Teeth’ is a close-quarters jam to a slice of highly-concentrated funk.
Front to back, Cheat Codes is a rousing delight; the inclusion of a previously-unheard verse by MF DOOM, on ‘Belize’, is a cherry on top.
- Zella Day — Sunday in Heaven
Let me start by saying that I have listened to this album innumerable times, and feel no closer to understanding what it means to “mushroom punch [one’s] way down the rabbit hole”, as Zella Day is planning on the opening track. What I can tell you, is that ‘Mushroom Punch’ is a giddy delight that starts as a finger-picked folk tune, before exploding into a piece of Sparks-style operatic pop, and which — a little more than two minutes in — takes a pause for a Bee Gees-esque disco break, replete with hazy synth. That’s the opening track: one of the most thrilling pop songs I encountered all year.
From there, we’re into ‘Am I Still Your Baby’, a self-assured slice of pop-rock on which Day allows her voice to somersault and soar, before sinking to a more intimate register. Then ‘Dance for Love’, which sounds like a lost 70s disco classic wrapped in sultry modern production.
Something that has become increasingly clear to me over the last few years, (and which may be apparent to the reader of this list) is that my favourite instrument — once the electric guitar — is now most-assuredly the female voice. There are captivating vocal passages on this record that bring to mind Kate Bush and Sinead O’Connor, as much as Lana Del Rey and Florence Welch. In combination with strong musical influences ranging from the golden-era of disco to straight-up country, it’s a record that may be confounding at first, but which has been endlessly fascinating and rewarding for me. From the emotional highs of ‘Golden’ (one album highlight among many) to the lower, but no less impassioned, ‘Last Time’, it’s a dizzying journey I grew increasingly comfortable with, and then found myself spellbound by.
- Buck 65 — King of Drums
Back in the early 2000s, I had begun the process of expanding my hip-hop horizons beyond the Aftermath Records artists on MTV. I was lucky enough to make friends with a real hip-hop head: a guy whose room in our university halls of residence was messy with vinyl records and obscure kung-fu movies on DVD. At the slightest sign of interest from me, he started pushing this material my way like an eager cult leader, sensing the opportunity to recruit. I didn’t own a turntable, but through sessions sat on his floor I began to absorb Eric B & Rakim, Gang Starr, The Pharcyde, and many others. I count myself lucky to have had someone to raise the curtain for me a little, and show me what lay beyond my Dr Dre and Eminem CDs.
Shortly thereafter, poking around in the hip-hop section of some record store or another, I stumbled across a pair of albums: one called Primitive Plus (2002) by Edan, and the other titled Square (2002) by Buck 65. Together, these two albums exploded my conception of what hip-hop was, and what it could do. Edan only released one subsequent LP, but I picked up everything Buck 65 (aka Rich Terfry) put out for the next decade-plus. Until, that is, he released Neverlove in 2014, and subsequently went dark. His online presence evaporated, his website was taken down. Eventually I heard he was hosting a drive-time show on Canadian radio.
As the years stretched on, I had all but lost hope that we’d ever hear a note of new music from Buck 65 again. And yet, here we are. In 2020, Terfry collaborated with Controller 7 on a concept album based around the Vincent Gallo movie Buffalo 66 (1998). Perhaps that relit the spark in him to make new music, because in 2022 he has been on a roll: digging in the vaults and putting up buried treasure on Bandcamp; a new collaborative LP with Tachichi; and a fascinating newsletter in which he has candidly laid out the story of his career. Most important of all though: a new Buck 65 record, which knocked my socks clean off the very first time I heard it. Old school production, absolutely peerless beat construction, and that familiar goofy flow spouting the weird and wonderful. It may have been eight years in the making, but my goodness the sheer amount of work and skill that has gone into it is stunning. Masterpiece — and easily his best since the record that completely spun my head two decades ago.
- Metric — Formentera
Even amongst albums that I love, there are very few that I would call truly flawless. One of them is Metric’s 2012 LP Synthetica — 43 minutes of unimpeachable, razor-sharp, neon-infused synth-pop-rock; every one of its eleven tracks a gold-plated ★★★★★. That record placed second on my 2012 list, runner-up only to a resurgent Deftones’ Koi No Yokan — I still enjoy that album a great deal, but there’s no doubt that, at a decade’s remove, those places would be switched. It’s not even close.
Metric made another top 5 appearance on my list in 2015, with Pagans in Vegas, but 2018’s Art of Doubt (whilst enormously enjoyable) fell a little short for me at the time. All of which brings us to Formentera, which grabbed me with a steel-lined velvet fist upon release in July, and hasn’t loosened its grip.
From 10 minute opening epic ‘Doomscroller’ (which feels like three great songs in one, and embarrasses Arcade Fire at their own game of digital-era, humans-before-technology operatic angst), to the sun-kissed, elegiac closer ‘Paths in the Sky’ (Emily Haines’ voice trampolining up above the burbling bass-line), this is an album of exceptional vision and craft. In between, there’s the darkly joyous ‘All Comes Crashing’, the blissfuly dreamy title track, and the riotous, infectious album highlight ‘False Dichotomy’ — one of the year’s most goosebump-inducing songs, even on the 50th listen.
Whisper it, but, this might just be their best record.
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