Friday, December 23, 2022

Best Of 2022: The Top 25

Another tumultuous year on the world stage, another triumphant year for musicians, who battled seeming impossibilities to deliver an embarrassment of riches to my ears and my life. The first half of the year was so strong that it was a challenge to hone things down to incorporate the albums that came on like a flood in the second half. None of the albums that didn't make the transition from the July list will be forgotten, however - keep an eye on this space for the genre-specific lists to come. And while I agree to a certain extent with those who have said "genre is over," I still believe that you can group albums in a way that allows you to quickly find the experience that most closely matches your taste or mood. As always, this list combines all genres, at least in theory. 

Conspicuous by its absence is hip hop, which has been represented on every "Top" list since 2010. Up until almost the last minute, Pusha T's remarkable It's Almost Dry was a lock for the top 10 but when the rubber hit the road it did not sit well with me to so elevate a record with Kanye West as a featured performer. Irrational as it might seem, if he had just lent his still brilliant production talents to the album I think I could have gone with it. But his continuing hateful idiocy along with recent revelations about praise for Hitler going back a decade or more just made it a bridge too far. So apologies to Pusha, who definitely helmed the hip hop album of the year - watch for it on a future list. 

Since I've already written about all of these albums but one, click through to find the original posts - and also press play on this playlist or below to listen while you read. Numbers 12 and 17 are only available on Bandcamp but I assure you they are worth the micron of effort it will take to hear them. 

1. Florist - Florist 

2. Angel Olsen - Big Time

22. Palm - Nicks And Grazes It's been an eventful four years since Rock Island, their genius sophomore album, with forces both within and without putting immense pressure on the quartet of Eve Alpert, Hugo Stanley, Gerasimos Livitsanos, and Kasra Kurt. But rather than giving up, they took the opportunity to both hone and explode their sound, with instant Palm classics like Parable Lickers (those rhythms! the electro-steel drums!)  sitting alongside the mostly washy Away Kit and almost pure expressions of musique concrete like Suffer Dragon, which itself resolves into a sentimental chord sequence out of a Miyazaki film. Ultimately, Palm's greatest strength may be in converting the outer edges of avant garde sound-making - including both digital and physical manipulation of their instruments - into actual songs that deliver pop satisfaction once you've absorbed all their twists and turns. One of our great live bands, too - hope to seem them again in 2023!

Let me know if any of these brought you joy!

From the archives:

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 3

Like I said, it's been a busy fall so far. And with the "best of" lists right around the corner, this will have to be the last installment! Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 and press play on the updated playlist here or below.

Matt Evans - Soft Science Percussionist, programmer, producer, and composer Evans continues to build on his remarkable discography with this third solo album. In fact, after the fizzy electronica of New Topographics and the complex and emotional soundscapes of Touchless, this may be the most well-rounded of the three. You get the full flavor of his polyrhythmic approach to the drum kit along with his marvelously distinctive and expressive curation of electronic sound, all woven together in a seamless and consistently compelling series of pieces. A perfect example is the opening cut, Saprotrophia, which incepts with a breathy synth before Evans unleashes a busy drum pattern that becomes like the verse of a wordless song and has me hanging on every note. A more abstract chorus (or is it the bridge?) provides respite before the drums kick back in, leaving me breathless. As he puts it, the albums is "mostly-not-chill" although some songs are more groove-oriented. And the finale, Alocasia, is fully chill, with droning synths and hand-percussion providing an underpinning for the gorgeous sax of David Lackner (check out YAI if you want more of him), leaving us in the perfect state to reflect on the marvels we just heard. 

Charlotte Dos Santos - Morfo While we were treated to a five-song EP in 2020, it's been a bit of wait since Dos Santos' delicious debut, Cleo, came out in 2017. If anything, her music has grown even more exquisite and expansive since then, morphing (hence the title?) ever closer to jazz, but never committing fully to any genre. Her voice remains a limber and delicate wonder that she employs with greater confidence than ever. Filha Do Sol is but one standout that shows off everything she can do, with a sinuous opening section that transits through a flute solo as it slow builds towards an abrupt shift into a Brazilian parade rhythm that has Dos Santos' declaiming in Portuguese with a sense of triumphant homecoming. Just one stunning musical vision out of the baker's dozen that make up this remarkable album.

Dry Cleaning - Stumpwork After several EPs and singles and a smashing debut, I suppose I should stop being surprised by Dry Cleaning's ability to find new avenues of invention while staying within the basic idea that Florence Shaw speak-sings evocative, fractured lyrics while guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard, and drummer Nick Buxton cook up colorful, post-punk informed surroundings for her musings. But here are 11 new songs that do just that, with Dowse and Maynard adding new colors to their palettes, like the chorused, arpeggiated guitar on Kwenchy Kups, or the funky, churning bass on Hot Penny Day. The instrumentation has also expanded, with keyboards and woodwinds making appearances. Shaw herself pushes into new territory, with an almost gentle (and charmingly off-key) croon on some songs, like Gary Ashby. Her lyrics also continue to confound and enchant in equal measure, as in the internal monologue/dialogue that forms the chorus of Kwenchy Kups: "Well, things are shit, but they're gonna be okay/And I'm gonna see the otters/There aren't any otters/There are/Well, we can check/And I'm gonna see the water caterpillar/There's no such thing, hmm?/Nice idea." And then there's Conservative Hell, which puts all their despair into the way Shaw phrases the chorus before ending with the bruised optimism of "I wanted to thank you for organizing the Edinburgh trip/Which apart from what happened to my Kindle, was amazing!/No one ever believed in me until your semi-circle eyes." It's details like that Kindle that elevate Shaw's work to that of literature. Gimme more.

Warhaus - Ha Ha Heartbreak With this third album, Maarten Devoldere's solo discography has now taken shape as a trilogy. The first, 2016's titanic We Fucked A Flame Into Being depicted a bad boy reveling in success and all its various infatuations. The self-titled sophomore album from 2017 was warmer, finding our man in love, if not in a completely uncomplicated way. Hopefully the five years since were happy ones. But we knew it couldn't last, hence this breakup song cycle that uses some of the sound world of Philly Soul and disco to limn Devoldere's sorrows. Amid the sweeping strings and funky percussion are the typically dramatic hallmarks of the Warhaus sound, horn blasts, scratchy guitars, and of course, Devoldere's husky burr, which imparts such wisdom as "'Cause someone should have left me like you did/Just someone, someone else instead/But it had to be you" with a casualness that's almost conversational. Even in a melancholy state, Devoldere can't help being darkly entertaining, as in Desire when he sings "There’s the god for your inner peace/The god of lust has him on a leash/The one who tripped and then fell from grace/And the one who’s renting out the place." Whatever the state of Devoldere's love life, he can rest assured that his place in the musical firmament of our time is ever more assured with this latest flash of brilliance.

Arctic Monkeys - The Car After the left turn of Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino in 2018, which saw Alex Turner and company leave the jagged post-punk and groovy hard rock of their previous albums for (as I wrote) "spacious arrangements of burbling bass, chamber-pop keyboards and witty drums," the sky really was the limit for the band. And while some question whether that album and this one are really Turner solo projects, the fact remains that when he needs to finalize his ideas, he turns to the same guys he's been working with all along. He also needs them to take it on the road, which they do quite successfully as the recent live film from Brooklyn's King's Theater made plain. But even there, Turner proved himself scarily talented and dominant, often driving the band with his guitar - tart, dense, funky, or soaring, as the songs require - and holding the spotlight with his charisma and conviction. If Tranquility Base presented the Arctics as essentially a new band, then they show no sign of sophomore slump on The Car. Adding elements of R&B and funk warm up the feel of the album and the songs are again cinematic, with a way of worming their way into your heart and mind over time. The album's themes can be summed up in I Ain't Quite Where I Think I Am, which finds Turner (or his protagonist) feeling out of place amidst hollow displays of luxury and false camaraderie: "It's the intermission/Let's shake a few hands/Blank expressions invite me to suspect/I ain't quite where I think I am/Stackable party guests/To fill the awkward silencđÁs." That "stackable party guests" line is just one of many, many examples of how Turner's brilliant lyricism continues to be a hallmark of the band, as the driving beat, sharp wah wah guitar, and massed choral vocals show them pushing into new territory to match the mood. For any fans who deserted the Arctic Monkeys when Tranquility Base came out, it is truly their loss as they just keep getting better and better. And, to the new fans (like my wife!), I say welcome to the wonderful world of Alex Turner.

Dazy - OUTOFBODY Their early singles were exciting enough to get me to Indieplaza early to catch the New York debut of this Richmond, VA noise pop band. Their set was a delightful blast of tune-laden distortion and they've totally delivered on that promise with this 12-song, 25-minute debut. All the songs are catchy and some, like On My Way and Rollercoaster Ride, are EXTREMELYCATCHY. Get to this STAT so you, too, can say you were up on Dazy early. 

The Stargazer Lilies - Cosmic Tidal Wave On their self-produced fifth album, these psychedelic shoegazers seem to have internalized whatever they learned from working with Tobacco (of Black Moth Super Rainbow) on Occabot (read it backwards), further expanding their sound without losing the focus on melody. John Cep's guitar playing has grown even more adventurous, with soaring lines dramatically emerging from the haze. He's also upped his keyboard game, with ever-groovier synth/guitar interactions. Kim Field's vocals are still evocative, almost shamanic, as she sings into the storm of sound, driven on by the majestic drums of Carissa Giard. In short, this is one heckuva band and they deserve wider uptake among discerning listeners - and isn't that you?

Pale Dian - Feral Birth Six years on from their debut, Narrow Birth, this Austin-based "nightmare pop" band - mostly the project of Ruth Smith - has left behind most of what made that one sound a bit over-familiar, if still powerful. The addition of space, elegance, and a dynamic range that has some songs delivering hammer blows like an epic soundtrack, is evidence of newfound confidence as they cut loose from their influences. MeLt, for example, is an excursion into post-punk atmospherics with touches of glossy reggae - all very unexpected from them, but still seeming inevitable. A song like True Love even shows a pop sensibility that will find first-time listeners quickly converted into fans. If this is an "auditory emotional sample for futures to come," as Smith describes it, I say bring it on.

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