Saturday, March 11, 2023

Best Of 2022: Rock, Folk, Etc.

I won't claim that any of the artists below are saviors of rock & roll as that would imply a genre on life-support. Only people who confuse music with the music business might make such a claim. As long as one person is listening, a genre is alive and the ripples outward from that individual's experience are unknowably vast. That's not to say, however, that everything I cover here (or in my Top 25) is obscure. Artists like Wet Leg, Wilco, Arctic Monkeys, Björk, and Father John Misty all have millions of listeners, after all. As for the ones that count their fans in the hundreds or thousands, perhaps they're meant to be more of a boutique or niche experience - and who doesn't love being part of an exclusive club? So, push past the velvet rope and find your own V.I.P. listening room among the releases below, starting with ones previously covered. Press play on this playlist or below to hear a track from most of them.

Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part Two)
Laney Jones - Stories Up High
Father John Misty - Chloe And The Next 20th Century Katie Dey - Forever Music (See also The Kraken EP, featuring songs based on Tennyson, etc.)
Dexy - Sleeping Through Summer
The Smile - A Light For Attracting Attention (See also Live At Montreux Jazz Festival, July 2022)
Spoon - Lucifer On The Sofa (See also Lucifer On The Moon, Adrian Sherwood's dub remix of the whole album)

The Best Of 2022 (So Far)
Soccer Mommy - Sometimes, Forever

Record Roundup: Evocative Voices
Ethan Woods - Burnout
Billie Eilish - Guitar Songs

Record Roundup: Songcraft
Björk - Fossora
The Soft Hills - Viva Che Vede
Tchotchke - s/t

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 2
Rachael Dadd - Kaleidoscope
Bonny Light Horseman - Rolling Golden Holy
Frankie Cosmos - Inner World Peace
Winter - What Kind Of Blue Are You?

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 3
The Stargazer Lilies - Cosmic Tidal Wave
Pale Dian - Feral Birth 


Starcrawler - She Said On their first two albums, the trajectory of this L.A. band, from the "sloppy, grinding" filth of the 2018 debut to the "intoxicating" blend of primal urges with a bit more sophistication of 2019's Devour You, was a total thrill ride. On album three, we find a leveling off, with much the same variety they gave us on Devour You, delivered with plenty of conviction but without the sense of discovery. Still, there plenty of the short, sharp shocks we expect, like Roadkill, which opens the album in blistering form, and True (original title: Deranged), which blasts past like a roaring train. Midnight and Better Place are both more reflective, with guitarist Henri Cash showing off his skills at layering acoustic and electric textures. The anthemic Stranded and bouncy Thursday come closest to pointing in new directions, for an album that satisfies but never quite hits the transgressive heights singer Arrow de Wilde shows off on stage. Once they figure out how to inject more of that back into their studio material, watch out!

Lifeguard - Crowd Can Talk Like their Chicago compatriots Horsegirl, this trio of high schoolers seems to have heard all the best indie/art rock records and have the skill to combine noise, melody, and a rhythmic drive into something that feels fresh. These four songs definitely have me eager for more, which is why I hope to catch them opening for Horsegirl at House Of Independents in Asbury Park, NJ on July 22nd. Look for a date near you.

Bodega - Broken Equipment and Xtra Equipment While I found it "kind of thrilling when they flex their pop muscles" on their 2019 EP, Shiny New Model, had it been an album I think I would have missed their sharper edges. I'm delighted to report that they've figured out how to salt the high energy, angular sound of their classic debut with the clever and catchy tunefulness of the EP. Lyrically, they're still pursuing their critique of modern society from an ironic distance that can be witty and inspiring ("This city’s made for the doers. The movers shakers. Not connoisseurs./This city’s made for the doers. The movers shakers. Health food reviewers." - from Doers) but can also be so obvious that it feels almost condescending ("Craven is the island that we all come from. New York was founded by a corporation." - from NYC (Disambiguation)). In fact, if not for that quality, this likely would have been in my Top 25 like the first one. Once they remember that their audience is likely as smart as they are, classic status will be once again in their grasp. Xtra Equipment, a collection of B-sides, leftover tracks, alternate takes, and covers, finds them expanding their palette yet again, with the sweetly reflective doo wop of Memorize w/ yr Heart and the electro of Post yr Kilimanjaro (Doers 2.0) pointing to an exciting future. 

No Knuckle - S/T On their second self-titled record, this Portland, OR post-punk trio has their take on the sound down to a science, all taut bass lines, jagged guitars, driving drums, and quirky vocals. But the sheer adrenaline and canny songwriting keep it fun instead of rote. Also, at nine songs in 20 minutes, there's no chance they'll overstay their welcome.

2nd Grade - Easy Listening While far more straightforward than Palm or Empath, this vehicle for the songs of Peter Gill is another fine example of how vital the Philadelphia scene is these days. With ringing guitars, bittersweet melodies, and lyrics to match ("You’re one step ahead of me/And I’m one hundred steps behind/Where I oughta be/But I’ll go there some other time," as Gill sings in Strung Out On You), 2nd Grade will slot nicely into your collection near Big Star and The Replacements. Guitarist/vocalist Catherine Dwyer, whose voice adds a nice counterpoint to Gill, is one secret weapon that sets them apart, but the songs are strong enough to do that on their own.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Endless Rooms After the new heights of 2020's Sideways To New Italy, it would be greedy to expect another leap from this Melbourne band, but I'm happy to report that their songwriting, employment of dynamics, and guitar layering all continue to advance. The inclusion of  field recordings is an original touch, too, lending a true sense of place - and time, i.e. the late pandemic. Making this record helped get them through Australia's many lockdowns, now its here to help you with whatever challenge you need to power through.


Princess Chelsea - Everything Is Going To Be Alright If you, like me, are not one of the millions of people who streamed or watched Chelsea Nikkel's 2011 song Cigarette Duet, this latest album, her fifth, might actually be a better place to start. While the title track keeps her twee cred intact, The Forest embraces power and repetition in a heavy yet controlled way that makes the building apotheosis truly cathartic. As a second track, it's slightly oddly placed as where do you go after catharsis? But her charming, well-constructed songs just win you over each time, whether the baroque pop of Time or the draggy lysergia of Dream Warrior. Score another win for New Zealand!

King Hannah - I'm Not Sorry, I'm Just Being Me I had already spent some time with this Liverpool Band's sepulchral folk-blues before seeing them at Indieplaza. That performance cemented my impression that Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle were on to something, with Merrick's moody, haunted vocals perfectly complimented by Whittle's spare, rattling guitar. A few songs feature Whittle singing and his voice is less distinctive than Merrick's, but the mood is sustained throughout. Don't be surprised if you hear a song like The Moods That I Get In or Foolius Caesar in David Lynch's next project - they'll work a treat.

S.G. Goodman - Teeth Marks While most of my knowledge of rural Kentucky comes from binging episodes of the classic series Justified, this second album rings out with the same absolute authenticity as her first. Perhaps even more confident than on 2020's marvelous Old Time Feeling, her range is powerfully on display between the searing a cappella of You Were Someone I loved and the working-class blues of Work Until I Die. The latter makes a great pair with Food For Thought by Mattiel, another artist incapable of singing a false note. 

Charlie Reed - Eddy Not a person, but a six (or seven?) piece band led by cosmic Americana dreamer Luke Trimble. There's a touch of late Beatles here, too - like, really late, think Real Love or Free As A Bird. Assured and very sweet, let yourself get pulled in by their sunny melodies and wide-ranging sound, with pedal-steel coexisting with mellotron, all yoked to some truly fine expressions of the bittersweet nature of existence. 

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Dear Scott The last album by this near-legendary Liverpudlian songwriter, Adiós Señor Pussycat, was one of 2017's most delightful surprises. A five-year wait dampened some of the momentum and may be the main reason I struggled to connect with this one. But it really is nearly as good, with songs either breezy and sparkling or dreamy and reflective creating jewel-like settings for Head's hard-won, yet still optimistic, wisdom. Never one to pontificate, his philosophy might be best encapsulated in the refrain from Gino And Rico: "Life is for living and living is for life/It's all in a day's work, tonight." Words to live by and tunes to match is what you can expect from this latest gem from the magical world of Michael Head.

Gabriel's Dawn - s/t Like The Clientele, this English band wears their influences on their (striped) sleeves, with a deep love for jangly, harmony-drenched, Laurel Canyon folk pop coming through loud and clear on this debut. But it's not just their enthusiasm that vaults this above mere revivalism, it's the songs, which breeze by in a rush of emotions like first love, first disillusionment, first sorrow. Fresh, is what this is, with ingeniously layered guitars and keyboards, swinging rhythms, and blissful harmonies. Kudos to guitarist Leon Jones for his production, which shaped these lockdown sessions, with band members often recording separately, into something warm and cohesive. 

Thus Love - Memorial This band from Brattleboro, VT, are not shy about presenting themselves as "self-identifying trans artists," but even more germane to the listener is their absolute adoration of 80s post-punk and dream pop. Bizarrely enough, I might prefer their take on the sound, with its heavily chorused guitars, atmospheric synths, melodic bass, and splashy, driving drums, to some of the original. Call me a philistine...but blazing enthusiasm like that shown by Echo Mars (guitar, vocals, cello), Lu Racine (drums), Sophia DiMatteo (bass), and Nathaniel van Osdol (synth) is a rare thing indeed - and completely contagious on this beautifully recorded album.

Miro Shot - Loot Box Their debut album, Content, slotted into 2020's Electronic list quite nicely, with its focus on forward-thinking sonics created with an eye on their eventual realization in VR-enhanced performances. This immaculately-recorded acoustic EP, however, puts the focus on what I called Roman Rappak's "trademark vocals, alternately wry and bruised" while also pointing up the sturdy song structures and emphasizing the melancholy core of Miro Shot's concerns. 

The Orielles - Tableau Jumping into a band's career on their third album, especially one as accomplished as this, can feel a little like cheating. After all, not being there to support them through their growing pains do you deserve to reap the rewards of their current mastery? Sure. Life's too short to deny yourself the pleasure of a richly immersive and flowing series of songs like this one. Intriguingly, this Manchester-based band calls Tableau their first "truly contemporary album," which makes me curious about their first two, and also detail the myriad processes used throughout its creation, from Leo Wadada Smith's graphic scores to Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. Additionally, they expanded their sound with strings and electronics, although even a new listener can tell that the trio of vocalist and bassist Esmé Hand-Halford, drummer Sidonie Hand-Halford, and guitarist Henry Carlyle-Wade remains the core of what they do. The results take you on a journey, from driving songs like Chromo II and Television to abstractions like The Improvisation 001 and Some Day Later, to others, like The Room and Transmission, which combine both impulses. I'm glad I discovered the Orielles, albeit belatedly, but if you miss this opportunity to start becoming a fan, that's on you.

Turnover - Myself In The Way The striking, die-cut cover, painted by bassist Dan Dempsey, caught my daughter's eye at Rough Trade, leading us to investigate further. We were pleasantly surprised to find a an album of sweetly melancholy pop songs, often disco-inflected and occasionally psychedelic. Mountains Made Of Clouds is a perfect example of the latter impulse, with watery strumming, birdsong, and a shuffling beat adding up to a transporting result. Bre Morell of Crushed, whose Extra Life EP just came out, duets with singer Austin Getz on Ain't Love Heavy, which cranks up the string synth, hands the hi hat to Isaac Hayes, and lets the dance floor fill with couples on their way to breaking up. Judging this consistently great album by its cover turned out to be entirely appropriate. We would have been even more surprised by how good it is had we been aware of the band's beginnings over a decade ago, when they were on some kind of emo tip. But we won't hold that against them!

Historian - Light Goes Out Ten albums in and Chris Karman keeps refining his dreamy chamber pop template. While this one has the now requisite strings and other orchestral touches, he also adds James Paul Mitchel's pedal steel, adding even more starlit grace than we've come to expect. Recorded at the same time as 2021's Out Of Season, this shares all the virtues of that earlier release. Since Shelf Life in 2013, Karman has been a supremely reliable source of decorous and resonant song craft. Let him decorate and resonate in whatever space you listen.

Living Hour - Someday Is Today It took three albums for this Winnipeg-based band to reach my ears. Maybe that's because they're from Winnipeg or it could be that they just hooked up with the excellent folks at Riot Act Media, who dropped this expansive indie-rock gem in my inbox. Although, working with such worthies as Melina Duterte (AKA Jay Som) and Jonathan Schenke, who has collaborated with indie gems like Parquet Courts, Snail Mail, and The Drums, and released on Kanine Records, from whence came the perpetually underrated Coasting by Honey Cutt, I think I would have got here somehow. But all those bona fides would count for nothing if the songs weren't so good and delivered with such assurance. Hump is just one example from late in the album, a slow-burner that gains force without ever gaining volume or tempo, guitar, bass, and drums in an inexorable but airy lockstep, while the vocals grow ever more hypnotic. Come under the power of Living Hour, not someday but today.


Grace Ives - Janky Star There is nothing janky about the solid melodic architecture Ives employs on song after song on this short, sweet, and tart project. Take Angel Of Business, with a verse that moves up by half steps, seemingly leading you to some kind of nirvana that never quite arrives, a stairway to...a few flights below heaven. But that kind of tease just makes the repeat button command to be struck. Then there's Lazy Day, as blissful and swinging as an early Madonna song, yet without the hard sell baked into every gesture. The musical underpinnings she builds are also sturdy, little engines of programmed drums, synth bass, and electronic keyboards, with occasional guitar or piano. She sings all these songs in an airy soprano, as natural as breathing, and often as relatable as your best friend: "Wait/I just wanted to relate/It only took me like 300 tries/Just to motivate," as she notes on Angel Of Business. However much effort it took for her to get here - and this is her third album - it all sounds delightfully easy peasy.

Automatic - Excess This electro-pop trio from L.A. was one of many bright discoveries at last year's IndiePlaza Festival and their taut bass lines, motorik drumming, swooping, burbling, and buzzing analog synths, and deadpan vocals are equally diverting on this terrific record. And, in contrast to the title, there's no fat on these carbon-steel bones.

Sofie Royer - Harlequin As a fan of her marvelous curatorial skills, I wasn't quite convinced by Cult Survivor, her 2020 debut as an artist, and I was even less sure after a tentative performance of mostly newer material at IndiePlaza. Fortunately, all of that is dispelled by this far more assured collection, with her 70s-cabaret-disco-decadence approach coming fully into focus. Baker Miller Pink, with its effulgent keyboards, tart rhythm guitar, handclaps, and four-on-the-floor rhythm is a standout, and is sure to reduce any hostilities at your next party as effectively as the "drunk-tank pink" to which the title refers. But any of these clever confections will liven up a playlist while adding a touch of European sophistication.

Mitski - Laurel Hell I'm not a die-hard, so I haven't ridden the rollercoaster with her fans around the announced retirement in 2019 then the (inevitable?) comeback with Working For The Knife in 2021. That song, which seemed to grapple with her career fears ("I used to think I'd be done by twenty/Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same/Though maybe at thirty, I'll see a way to change/That I'm living for the knife.") over a brick-hard beat, doomy synth, baroque piano, and dramatic guitars, now finds a home on what may be her finest album yet. Or at least the one that appeals to me the most. Tracks like Stay Soft, Heat Lightning, and I Guess show her complete mastery at assembling arresting (mostly) electronic environments for her introspective songwriting. The last track, That's Our Lamp, goes a bit overboard, but it almost sounds like she's having fun, which is refreshing. And since I'm not a die-hard, I'll try not to read too much into lyrics like "I guess, I guess/I guess this is the end/I'll have to learn/To be somebody else." After all, she's already very good at being Mitski.


Skyway Man & Andy Jenkins - Nothing No. 1 It's been a long wait since Jenkins's sublime Sweet Bunch in 2018, a hiatus that was slightly softened by The Garden Opens, a fine EP from 2019, so just hearing his voice on this collaborative release is a balm to the soul. As a bonus, Molly Sarlé, who got a bit of play around here with her excellent Karaoke Angel album in 2019, also lends her dulcet voice to the project. And Skyway Man? He seems to fit right in with the cosmic, soulful Americana for which Jenkins and other Spacebomb artists are known. Holding onto this like a little life raft until the next Jenkins opus. Let it be soon.

Patrick Watson - Better In The Shade This brief (21-minute) collection is a reminder of what makes Watson so special: the voice like a cloud, the Satie-esque piano, the existential attitude of a chain-smoker of Gauloises. Even better was seeing him in full flight with the Attaca string quartet in Central Park last summer, but this is as lovely a calling card as I could hope for.

Caroline - s/t In this day and age, few bands have the patience to wait five years to put out a debut album. But getting eight players to gel, as they do so beautifully on this album, takes time, as does arriving at a sound that has a familiar warmth but doesn't sound precisely like anything else. There's some of the (mock?) solemnity and fireside minimalism of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra here as well as a touching relationship with a current strain of UK post-rock - think Black Country New Road, yet pursued more profitably. It's arty, it's folky, and, even at its oddest, it creates a palpable sense of friendship while you listen, something ever more valuable in these times.


Girlpuppy - When I'm Alone While Becca Harvey's sound is very different from that of Faye Webster or Mattiel, it's great to hear another sign of life from Atlanta on this richly produced series of songs. Over tunes that sometimes opt for a 90s guitar chug and at other times drift into more dreamy territory, Harvey's sweet voice delivers some bitter pills about the pitfalls of modern relationships. As she sings on Revenant: "i’m waiting for you to leave/now, sick of checking my phone and seeing your name/i wish i knew how to forget everything/that’s ever happened to me." The sound overall is detailed, with layers of guitars, keyboards, and strings adding up to a polished yet personal result. Multi-instrumentalists Samuel Acchione (who also produced) and John Michael Young put in most of the work creating those layers and it was time well spent on these fine songs.

NoSo - Stay Proud Of Me As proven by a quick dive on YouTube, Abby Hwong is a guitar virtuoso who has wisely learned to turn down all the tricky stuff they used to play and let the focus be on the songs. And fine songs they are, dealing with the ups and downs of identity and romance in a tuneful and deceptively breezy fashion. "I'm envious of straight hips/Jangling nerves, simple limbs/Oh, I couldn't swim/fFast enough/But I made it out/Halfway done," Hwong sings in I Feel You, covering a lot of ground in a few words before the song switches to a coda that calls you to the dance floor. With sleek production, a beautiful voice, and wise pop songs, NoSo has put together a remarkably assured debut album that will have you marveling at their craft while never drawing attention to it.

C. Duncan - Alluvium The title refers to a deposit of silt, gravel, etc., left behind by running water, which might be slightly ironic as this fourth album is all running water, flowing gently past my ears and continuing through to the ether. This does mean it took me longer to connect to it than his last, 2019's Health, which featured tunes "as catchy as heck" and hit my Top 25. But there are few hoeing the row of sophisticated, synthetic pop better than Duncan these days, so grasp these diaphanous wisps of optimistic song as tightly as they'll let you. 

Faye Webster - Car Therapy Sessions This orchestral EP of one new and four reimagined songs is pop in the sense that Julie London or Joni James would easily recognize. And with Spacebomb's Trey Pollard behind the arrangements, the surroundings are not only as rich and lush as a room full of whipped cream but also phenomenally tasteful. The older songs, including Kind Of (here called Kind Of (Type Of Way)), a standout from 2021's brilliant I Know I'm Funny HaHa, slot perfectly into this expanded sound world, and the one new song, Car Therapy, takes advantage of them from the start. A gorgeous consolidation of all that makes Webster special, I'm now dreaming of her take on James' version of Little Girl Blue.

Beabadoobee - Beatopia The buzz for Beatrice Kristi Ilejay Laus's 2020 debut album, Fake It Flowers, was tough to ignore but I found it sounded too...familiar, with pale echoes of 90s bands that had limited appeal in the first place. But at my daughter's urging I tried again with Beatopia and it was totally worth it. The leap between albums is quite extraordinary to my ears, with her intimate, slightly child-like voice now assaying everything from string-laden folk (Ripples) to bossa nova (The Perfect Pair) to some orchestral pop of her own (Lovesong). While I listened, I kept saying to myself, "How did she get so GOOD?" She put in the work, that's how. Now it's up to you to make the effort to listen.

There's more goodness of this sort to be found in this archive playlist - plus, keep up with 2023 here.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2021: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2019: Rock, Folk, Etc. 
Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc. 
Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

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