The Top 50 Albums of the Year
Our edit of the best albums of 2022 – from thrilling debuts to long-awaited returns, via luxuriant homages, breakup albums, post-hardcore sound collages, and vivid depictions of place and time. Music that left a mark on us – and the world – in a year that’s oscillated between the frightening and the absurd; painful and joyous. It’s been a lot.
Released just seven days into 2022, Dawn FM felt a bit like the New Year’s Eve party that really should have wrapped up five – maybe six – days ago. In a good way. But now is when we should acknowledge, upfront, that using a radio station as a conceptual hook for an album is usually a thin veil for a lack of direction. Nevertheless, Abel Tesfaye – a.k.a. The Weeknd – programmed Dawn FM with just enough bleak narratives and morning-after dread to render the interstitial anchorman and tacky ads effective. Lead producer Oneohtrix Point Never is at the peak of his powers here, beaming Tesfaye’s vocals through a prism so gloomy and cavernous you forget you’re listening to the second-most streamed artist in the world. “Obsessing over aftermaths/ Apocalypse and hopelessness,” he sings breathlessly on Gasoline over Kraftwerk-indebted synths. It won’t go down as his most popular record, but there’s a case for this purgatory radio station being remembered as one of Tesfaye’s most compelling.
Pripyat unfurls like a theatrical work. Where previously Catalan musician Marina Herlop has been primarily known as a pianist, here she explores a more electronic territory, with each element adding to her vision of a posthuman landscape. Despite the complexly layered sound design, there exists a tangible connection to the earth, pairing organic and inorganic, folk modes and future music, to startling effect. But it’s Herlop’s vocals – which draw on operatic and Carnatic techniques – that form the heart of Pripyat. Herlop breaks apart language into its rhythmic components, exploding texture and meaning. The result is sensory and transcendent: opener abans abans casts its spell with a precise sequence of notes that cascade like a shooting star, while shaolin mantis sees pizzicato strings interlace with modulated vocal chirrups. The prayer-like Kaddisch, the most stripped back track here, is a breathtaking reconciliation of ancient and modern that captures, in essence, the competing impulses that course through Pripyat. A strange, hermetic masterpiece.
In an interview with the New York Times, former Cherry Glazerr member Sasami Ashworth said the aim for her second solo album was to appropriate white, male music. A knowing quip that doesn’t begin to capture the unfiltered, borderline batty scope of SQUEEZE. Nods to nu-metal and industrial noise sit alongside washed-out 90s alt rock and sweeping neoclassical romanticism, with Ashworth’s voice oscillating between careworn country and full-throated rock to meet every twist and turn along the way. There’s even a Daniel Johnston cover, a gloriously scuzzy take on Sorry Entertainer that sees Ashworth affecting a scream so guttural that the microphone picks up her coughing at the end. At times it feels like chaos is hard coded into the heart of SQUEEZE – which is what makes the record so liberating. As Ashworth has it, amid the skronk and scree of the title track, and ably assisted by London artist No Home: “I can transform, I can conform/ Liquid body, I just wanna be free!”
Low End Activist
Sneaker Social Club
Certain records not only manage to capture a sense of place, but are completely immersed within it. Burial’s Untrue, for example, doesn’t just evoke the sound of London at night: it spiritually transports the listener to the back of a south London night bus, rain pounding on the roof. Low End Activist’s Hostile Utopia has a similar effect; its locus being the greyscale throng of suburban Britain. Inspired in part by Low End Activist’s upbringing on the Blackbird Leys estate on the edge of Oxford, the record taps into a complicated sense of nostalgia felt for a home that is at once cherished yet profoundly flawed. Drawing on a distinctly UK sound palette of hardcore, jungle, dubstep and grime, it vividly depicts the melting pot that is urban Britain – a place that is at once mundane, violent, ordinary and extraordinary.
Un Verano Sin Tí
You can always count on Bad Bunny to deliver a summer anthem. This year, it took on the tantalising form of Tití Me Preguntó – a dembow-infused love letter to Bad Bunny’s many lovers. At the centrepiece of the track is a spoken interlude in which a Dominican tía reprimands him for his libidinous lifestyle, insisting he settles down; a playful nod to Latinx family dynamics. Recorded in Dominican Republic and his native Puerto Rico, Un Verano Sin Tí is a cohesive journey through the various stages of heartache, set to typical Latin Caribbean diasporic sounds (reggaeton, bachata, bomba, mambo). Me Porto Bonito, which features Chencho Corleone of legendary perreo duo Plan B, winkingly submits to a baddie over sticky reggaeton production; Yo No Soy Celoso dials down the lust for something more tender, as Benito comes to terms with feelings of jealousy and distrust over a bossa nova shuffle. Joy and grief, representation and resistance – Bad Bunny continues to masterfully capture the complexities of Latinx identity.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Traditional Music of South London
The Death of Rave
Dale Cornish’s 12th album is a sleazy, black-lit trawl through south London’s seediest clubs and darkest back alleys. The record stands out in our cultural landscape not because it tries to, but because it doesn’t. The cheeky title is fitting, Cornish genuinely attaching himself to a lineage that includes Siouxsie Sioux, Throbbing Gristle, Digital Mystikz and, of course, Burial, huffing vapours of local inspiration without letting the rush overwhelm his uniquely personal observations. Call it queer art if you like, but Cornish’s dialect-heavy rap poetry, splayed over ruggedly minimal approximations of burned-out techno and grime, sounds like an attempt to drag gay culture away from chaste Insta-glamour and usher it towards the sex party, the squat rave and the union rally. His sneers, growls and taunts are Pied Piper-like, and Cornish rewards his followers with occasional, blissful wails of laptop-mangled folk.
Loggerhead is a masterclass in the art of harnessing tension. On Wu-Lu’s tightly coiled debut album, the instrumentation is taut and often sounds agitated. But the album also explores how to release that anxiety. “These are tuff times/ For my mind and its design,” the Brixton native sings on the brilliant 90s American indie pastiche, Times. Loggerhead is the sound of a troubled mind searching for comfort – and it does find peace in certain moments. Take Stage evokes the raw funk of Isaac Hayes, while Facts features Thom Yorke-style piano that cuts through the murk. “I don’t want to see your mental health go to waste,” guest Léa Sen repeats on the experimental cut-and-paste lo-fi audio collage that is Calo Paste. Fuelling the project is a sense of political rage, as the south London artist reckons with racial inequality (Blame), as well as the devastating effects of gentrification and the Grenfell tragedy (South). A galvanising picture of life and loss in the big city.
Dean Van Nguyen
In 2019, Mitski Miyawaki retreated from the public eye, removing herself from social media and most press obligations. Ironically, since then, her profile has only risen – she has a devoted TikTok fandom, and her 2022 shows were beset by screams that drowned out her vocals – though she still prefers to reveal herself via music only. Laurel Hell, Mitski’s sixth record, is a straightforward but intimate breakup album, wherein she both accepts blame (The Only Heartbreaker, as brash and synthy as Holding Out for a Hero – only with the misery turned, as always, firmly inward) and acts petty (the Technicolor, almost showtune-y Should’ve Been Me), refracting each of the complex emotions of separation through a different musical prism. Even though many of the songs sound lighter and poppier than her previous work, the signature Mitski bite never lets up: “I’ll show you who my sweetheart’s never met,” she intones on opener Valentine, Texas. “Wet teeth, shining eyes glimmering by a fire.”
WARM (Ron Trent)
What Do the Stars Say to You
Night Time Stories
A single couch faces a window at sunset, a record splayed beside it. The artwork for What Do the Stars Say to You evokes a dying practice that likely characterised Ron Trent’s own youth – listening as a deeply immersive activity. On this album, the Chicago house legend pays homage to the luxuriant, adventurous music that coloured the 70s and 80s, creating delicate blends of electronic and live instrumentation across jazz, disco, balearic house and new age. Trent’s list of collaborators is testament to his love for the originators: German musician Lars Bartkuhn and Brazilian percussionist Ivan Conti of jazz-funk trio Azymuth build a flow of light percussion on the album’s opener Cool Water; French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty provides feverish strings on Sphere; and Italian ambient giant Gigi Masin lends his emotional soundscapes to Admira. Trent, best known as a house DJ, demonstrates a deft musicianship that more than meshes with these luminary talents. But nevermind all that. What Do the Stars Say to You simply asks you to listen.
Double Double Whammy
For Florist’s fourth record, Emily Sprague and her band decided to take a new approach. Where usually they would enter the studio with at least some music prepared, this time they rented a house in New York State’s Hudson Valley, living together while working collaboratively on what became the self-titled album’s 19 tracks. This homely approach explains standouts like the pared-down Big Thief earthiness of Two Ways, and 43’s lo-fi meandering, over which Sprague’s voice hovers breathily. Duet for Guitar and Rain is a snug, reverb-drenched instrumental interlude that evokes the warmth of its name – rainfall field recordings and all. The album’s greatest achievement, however, lies in its cracks. Over half of the record’s songs are made up of improvised performances, domestic noise and found sounds. It is in these moments that Florist truly buzzes, alive with all the gentle vitality of a home and the love inside its walls.
London singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya opted to dial everything back for album number two. After the conceptualising of her debut, Yanya and her long-term collaborator Wilma Archer trusted that the textures conjured by her frank lyricism and guitar skills – which recall the bummed haze of shoegaze at times, jittery and stark at others – are more than enough to draw you into her conflicted inner world. This is an album that stirs with buried feelings involuntarily rising to the surface: “I’ve wasted my life,” she sings on shameless, a lilting highlight that spotlights her liquid-light touch with melody. L/R’s grungy stomp is a fitting backdrop for Yanya’s hauntingly casual delivery of “sometimes it feels like you’re so violent, autopilot”. On closing track, anotherlife, she offers, free of self-judgement: “In some kind of way, I am lost/ In another life, I was not.” The line’s simplicity obscures its depth – it’s a hallmark that carries across the entire album, to stunning effect.
Desquamation (Fire, Burn. Nobody)
With an aesthetic moodboard dominated by Burial, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, Throbbing Gristle, and Unknown T’s moody Rise Above Hate, it could have been easy for Rainy Miller to lose himself in tasteful, referential world-building. But the Preston-raised MC and producer possesses an unmistakably northern sense of modernist romanticism that anchors his debut album and guides it through the UK’s greyest estates. “A Fiesta burns bright,” he croons through Auto-Tune on There’s A Fiesta MkII on Fire, turning a grim, post-industrial regularity into a strangely alluring beacon of hope. Miller offers the flipside to his schoolmate and regular collaborator Blackhaine’s needles-and-broken glass urban realism; there’s a melted heart behind his gossamer memories of tangled Midlands motorways and brutalist concrete monoliths that couldn’t be more British – or more necessary.
“I thought I saw a young couple clinging to a round baby/ But it was a bundle of trash and food,” drones Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw on the title track of the post-punk band’s second LP, Stumpwork. The lines sum up the group’s MO: life can be beautiful, and sometimes it is, but mostly, for young people in modern Britain, it is disappointing and, in fact, frequently humiliating. The instrumentation on Stumpwork is fascinating – the percussion chugging along like existence itself; the guitars an angular, minimalist whirr – but Shaw, her dour delivery, and her weirdo lyrics, are the headline news. Sometimes she’s voyeuristic, positively Jarvis Cocker-esque; elsewhere, optimism slips through. Take Kwenchy Kups, on which there’s a silver lining, childish and small as it might be, offset by a jangly, Cure-like brightness in the guitars: “Things are shit, but they’re gonna be OK/ And I’m gonna see the otters.”
Could We Be More
Could We Be More is Kokoroko’s debut album, not that you’d know it by listening. This record is awash with a supreme confidence that reflects the young Afrobeat ensemble’s swift rise as part of London’s jazz scene. Dancefloor-igniting bursts of energy sit side by side with luxurious, unhurried jams that sprawl to nearly seven minutes. Led by trumpeter and vocalist Sheila Maurice-Grey, each of the group’s eight members add their own unique touch to the album’s opulent sound: sharp, razor-wire guitar lines weave in and out of hot-footed polyrhythms on tracks like We Give Thanks; the relative minimalism of Age of Ascent spotlights the horns; and War Dance thrives on the strength of its rhythm section. But it’s the group’s gift for melody that shines throughout, with many of the tracks’ toplines so well constructed, they’re filled with a familiar sense of warmth – even if it’s your first listen.
Mello Music Group
Detroit rapper Quelle Chris dropped one of the most intriguing hip-hop albums of 2022. DEATHFAME, largely produced by Chris himself, is disorienting but enlightening, featuring dusty drum loops, jazzy chords and distorted samples. But Chris’ tight flow brings crystal clarity to the project as he takes in the many shades of his life. He’s thankful for his existence on Alive Ain’t Always Living; flexes on inferior MCs on Feed the Heads; and So Tired You Can’t Stop Dreaming’s DOOM-indebted beat lays the foundation for a slick spar with LA rapper Navy Blue. On the title track, a hypnotic yet sinister piano refrain proves that Chris doesn’t just rap, he floats, levitating over the lilting, carnivalesque production: “But I wanna be somebody, you know?/ I want people to know that I was here, ya dig?” In these moments of existential introspection, DEATHFAME truly soars, fuelled by Chris’ quiet confidence in navigating a world of his own making.
Rave & Roses
Mavin Global/Jonzing World
Nigerian artist Rema is in the small class of pop stars for whom making a debut album posed a problem. With a devoted fanbase and a star power established through a meteoric rise, what do you say when the world is waiting for something definitive? A nice problem to have but a challenge nonetheless, and one that the king of the Ravers rose to. Gooey vocals stick to a nocturnal Afro-fusion production on Dirty; the 22-year-old’s sculpted flow dances around a lilting guitar line on Soundgasm; and he transports AJ Tracey from Ladbroke Grove to Benin City on the sophisticated euphoria of FYN. Where other stars use first albums to zoom in on and cement their technique, Rema opened himself up to a world of sounds. As he told us in our Issue 121 cover story, “I don’t really share my hustle with the world. Letting people know the results is better than letting people know the process.” The journey is just getting started.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Cool It Down
Returning after nearly a decade’s hiatus could have gone either way for a band as iconic as Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But Spitting Off the Edge of the World, their latest album’s cinematic comeback single, squashed those fears. The New York trio have always written songs that make you feel alive; whether that’s dive bar punk or ethereal electronic pop. On Cool It Down – a record that wrestles with impending climate doom – they take a slightly more polished approach. With jaunty piano and tambourines, Burning struts like a well-produced soul cut, while Different Today is unadulterated synth pop, complete with a seamless key change, that repeats, “Oh, how the world keeps on spinnin’/ It goes spinnin’ out of control.” Karen O’s vocals, as always, are the centrepiece: she switches between spoken-word poetry, bold growls and shrieking yelps to give shape to themes of despair, hope and collective healing. Only they could create a work that is as profound as it is fun.
Nothing to Declare
Camae Ayewa, a.k.a. Moor Mother, confidently shapeshifts between the role of preacher, poet and polemicist on Nothing to Declare. Amplified by DJ Haram’s grungy, freewheeling rhythmic structures, the duo’s second record together is a breathless transmission from a divided society that directly addresses a litany of issues without pulling its punches. But it’s also perforated with humour, levity and blunted surrealism, in true 700 Bliss fashion. While Ayewa cuts up her labyrinthine thoughts on ancestral traditions, billionaires, conspiracy theories, state violence, race and class divides, Haram approximates matching messages with her pitted productions, assembling a 2022 topography in wireframe using darbuka rhythms, bursts of white noise, industrial techno thuds and distorted 808 kicks without hierarchy. To lighten the mood, they acknowledge the canon of classic East Coast rap albums with occasional skits, making the doomier moments land even harder.
And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow
On And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, her fifth album as Weyes Blood, Natalie Mering further cements her status as a sort of millennial Karen Carpenter, her rich alto a warming bonfire, and her ear for timeless, shag-carpet piano melody still unmatched among her peers. Here, she applies the reedy 70s singer-songwriter aesthetic she has acquired over her last couple of records to matters like contemporary alienation – on lead single It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody, she sings, “Oh, it’s been so long since I was really known” over Mary Lattimore’s glow-in-the-dark harp – but she also offers an alternative. God Turn Me into a Flower, for example, is a spinning, layered universe of vocals, strings and noises from the natural world swirling cosmically above the listener’s head. Like much of this special record, the moment suggests communion and harmony over individualism: in togetherness, Mering’s record seems to say, there is salvation. In the darkness, our hearts all glow the same.
The Vanity Project
2 B REAL
If you spend enough time haunting Manchester’s queer underground, running across Iceboy Violet isn’t so much a possibility as it is an inevitability. The idiosyncratic MC and occasional producer has attracted plenty of buzz in the last few years collaborating with artists like Loraine James, aya and Blackhaine. On The Vanity Project, Iceboy Violet rhymes melodiously in soft-focus Yorkshire tones over stormy productions from their global web of friends and family. Space Afrika lean into their grime roots on the cheekily titled Urban Ambience, losing resonant stabs and groans in quintessentially northern industrial atmospheres. Iceboy Violet responds with an off-kilter rap that isolates their appeal: their delivery levitating at the intersection of tightly sprayed drill chatter and psychedelic, Burroughsian beat poetry. They’re versatile and exploratory here, tirelessly excavating a creative identity that links the global sound system diaspora (Antiskeptic) with gooey cloud rap (Are U Connected) and grotesque DIY noise (DEATHDRIVE).
The wry wisdom of Alabaster DePlume’s fifth solo album lies in its simple emphasis on those traits that make us human. On a material level, the soft hum of choral singers and the cheers of recorded crowds (A Gente Acaba, Fucking Let Them) stress the corporeal from the get-go. Even the saxophone is anthropomorphised, as DePlume plays pensive spiritual jazz melodies with such gentle vibrato that they emulate human sobs. DePlume’s spoken-word interludes offer meditations on white privilege (The World Is Mine), toxic masculinity (I’m Good at Not Crying) as well as, most commonly, the healing capacity of love. However, his earnestness is offset with irony, and hyper-referential lyrics like “I remember to change at Highbury/ But I forget that I’m precious” (Don’t Forget You’re Precious) temper his sermonic tone to prevent the message ever tipping into worthiness. An impressive achievement from one of the UK jazz scene’s brightest lights.
It’s fitting that midway through Bad Influence, London-based R&B artist Ojerime drops a track called Mantra. The entire album could be described as such. From the lyrics to the phrasing to the hypnotic arrangements, everything about Bad Influence lulls the listener into a state of blissed-out calm, hypnotised into absorbing the record’s intimate message almost through osmosis. Every track blends the nostalgia of 90s neo soul – a slow-motion spritz of fat guitars and keyboards, bass frequencies lower than the Mariana Trench – with decidedly modern production flourishes like rapid trap beats and vocals soaked in reverb. Relationships, heartbreak, self-assuredness, spirituality: all of these themes are filtered through this prism of scratchy vinyl and weed resin to create something that’s deceptively simple while also expressing real, raw emotions. That’s not to say Bad Influence is basic in any way; it just feels so laid back, so right, that it’s a wonder you’ve never heard anything exactly like it before.
My Body Your Choice
The professional trials and tribulations of painter and musician Issy Wood have been well documented. In the space of a year, she rejected the patronage of the Gagosian in favour of a smaller gallery in the Upper East Side, and reneged on her deal with Mark Ronson’s Zelig label (owned by Sony) to release her music independently. As she told the New York Times, “If I wanted an older man to hold money over my head, I would’ve gotten back in touch with my dad.” This kind of dry, self-referential wit is all over Wood’s addictive debut album, My Body Your Choice. Recorded alone at her kitchen table, the 12 tracks feel like whispered diary entries, trembling and flickering with all the handmade allure of an independent art project. The record is gorgeously offhand and unrehearsed. So much so, that even calling it pop music implies a sense of strategy which Wood might reject. Artists go to great lengths to imply a sense of effortlessness. Here, it’s real.
Remember Your North Star
“The pussy so, so good/ And you still don’t love me.” When Brooklyn-based R&B singer Yaya Bey drops this line at the crux of Keisha, one of the best tracks on her stunning debut album for Big Dada, Remember Your North Star, the confusion and hurt winds you. Not only is it brilliant songwriting – to succinctly say so much with so little – but the lyric perfectly encapsulates the album’s Black feminist narrative of navigating misogynoir while coming of age in a society that takes everything you do for granted. Bey’s voice is deliciously, spirit-warmingly mellow, weaving tales of ain’t-shit men and generational trauma through jazz, R&B, reggae and soul. She sounds both older than her years and incredibly fresh faced, someone who has seen too much but hasn’t given up on searching for the answers. This debut is indeed Bey’s guiding light, but it’s one she lit herself, kept bright by the self-made confidence of a nascent star.
There’s an unmistakable earthy crust encasing everything Maral produces, whether it’s dubbed-out Phrygian trip-hop or punk-ish shortwave dembow. Her use of distortion characterises her music, detaching it from modern dance music’s relative cleanness and bracketing it to an era of slashed guitar amps, jerry-rigged subwoofers and makeshift instruments. But Maral’s latest album isn’t a nostalgia trip – far from it, in fact. It’s a stark, impressionistic painting of modern Los Angeles, filled with unique autobiographical clues and buoyed by an omnipresent downtempo groove. The record is haunted by Maral’s Iranian ancestry, which she represents with samples snipped from her parents’ collection of traditional folk, classical and pop music cassettes. These elements are like wisps of phantasmagorical ether that curl around each track’s weighty rhythmic foundations, blurring time and place into a transcendent, ritualistic swing.
Show Me the Body
Trouble the Water
Brooklyn band Show Me the Body have long flirted with electronic elements in their music, but on their third LP, Trouble the Water, this frisson becomes a full-blown exploration, with sonic results that genuinely expand the boundaries of what hardcore punk can mean and achieve. This is a murky, angry record which makes no bones about its rage: Trouble the Water once again sees the band turning their frustrations with the gentrification of New York City (“They keep turning up/ They think there’s more than they can ask for,” vocalist Julian Cashwan Pratt growls on the furiously chugging War Not Beef) into a battle cry. Crashing breakdowns are embellished with sinister, swelling synths, as Show Me the Body continue to find new ways of helping their instrumentation match the gargantuan, life-or-death stakes of Pratt’s messaging.
Natural Brown Prom Queen
The art of moving between genres is hard to perfect. But despite shifting through styles and moods at breakneck speed, from soul to jazz to hip-hop to Afrobeat to pop, each one of Natural Brown Prom Queen’s tracks never come off as gimmicky or unstable. The violin is Sudan Archives’ instrument of choice, and on album centrepiece Selfish Soul, its playful melodies skip across the driving beats like kids playing a game of hopscotch. “I don’t want no struggles, I don’t want no fears/ About time I embrace myself and soul, time I feed my selfish soul,” she sings on the track, making her intentions clear: this project is for her. NBPQ (Topless) switches gears from bouncy club track into a chorus of angelic harmonies, filling the listener with anticipation about what sonic switch-ups might lie around the corner. Sudan Archives ignores conventions around pop music to say exactly what she wants to – which is exactly why she doesn’t sound like any other artist making R&B today.
Half Moon Bay
Speaking with Crack Magazine last year, California-based producer Tomu DJ revealed that, looking forward, she aimed to shift her focus from making music to “accepting myself”. A year on from her debut album comes its follow-up, Half Moon Bay, a record that brims with dreamy soundscapes calling for further introspection. Whether it’s the distant breakbeat rattles and sombre synth pads of Bumpville or the crunchy percussion that delicately builds around fluttering keys on Optimistic, Tomu DJ elegantly showcases her vast array of influences, from Teklife footwork and ambient to misty dembow and dream pop. Across its seven tracks, Tomu DJ creates expansive music that offers a space for reflection, even if it rolls at a slightly faster pace than one might expect. Half Moon Bay is both a manifesto and a balm, imploring us all to check in with ourselves with empathy and grace.
For Wet Leg, 2022 has been the type of year that most new bands dream of. Harry Styles covered Wet Dream on Radio 1; Chaise Longue was, well, Chaise Longue; and as of November, the Isle of Wight duo, comprised of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers, found themselves Grammy-nominated. Their self-titled debut is top heavy where their big singles are concerned, but it’s side two that ultimately places Wet Leg in the lineage of rock bands who perfected a sense of sly distance. I Don’t Wanna Go Out is like Elastica on a hangover; and on Convincing, they channel Garbage’s disaffected, mid-90s sound. Wet Leg make these references their own, however, with a funny, dismissive type of sexual bravado that sneers at every bloke with round glasses who has ever thought he was cooler than them. Like Wet Leg or not, you have to admit that “tell me do you want to come home with me? I’ve got Buffalo 66 on DVD…” is a par for the ages.
It’s Almost Dry
Will Pusha T ever relent in his brilliance? His reign as “cocaine’s Dr. Seuss” goes all the way back to the Clinton era; his pursuit of making the perfect drug rap song casts him as an expert chemist eternally trying to enhance the formula. Pusha’s unrelenting vitality is helped by the fact that he continues to convince Pharrell and Kanye to part with many of their best beats. The pinging electronics of Brambleton recall Clipse’s classic album Hell Hath No Fury; the rickety piano and drums stomp of Dreamin of the Past is an inventive summoning of Donnie Hathaway’s version of Jealous Guy. But mostly, King Push sounds like he just loves being a rapper. His enunciation is impeccable, his flow is multifaceted. It’s Almost Dry stands as a monument to Pusha’s longevity and excellence. A lot done, more to do; yesterday’s price is not today’s price.
Dean Van Nguyen
God Save the Animals
It has been a joy to watch the development of Philadelphia’s Alex G over the years – from his origins as a lo-fi bedroom artist to his current position as peerless alt-pop indie icon. He is a meticulous and uncompromising world builder, equal parts producer and songwriter, capable of creating music that exists in a rich and complex macrocosm. On God Save the Animals, his sonic universe is busier than ever, filled with knotty narratives that blur the line between autobiography and fiction – each one populated by a dizzying array of voices and characters that span human, animal and spiritual worlds. On album highlight, Blessing, he takes the form of a shadowy prophet – vocals pitched to an unrecognisable drawl – to impart an ominous observation on behalf of the natural world: “If I live like the fishes/ I will rise from the flood.”
Running in Waves
PLZ Make It Ruins
The title Running in Waves couldn’t be any closer to encapsulating the playful nature of George Riley and her evocative strain of R&B. Produced by Vegyn, the UK producer who excels at a sort of subtle experimentalism, the album is a meeting of like-minds; two creative spirits drawn to a more freewheeling approach to life and sound – something that’s felt in Running in Waves’ simmering production. Looking back to move forward, Riley sets boundaries based on past experiences, and reaffirms her needs in a honeyed voice that simultaneously grounds and stirs. Album highlight Time is a maelstrom of breaks, assertive vocals and ruminations on Riley’s likes – “good guys, nice food/ Happy weed and Camper shoes” – and dislikes. Elsewhere, the track titles – Sacrifice, Jealousy, Acceptance – read like chapters of a well-thumbed self-care book. There’s pleasure to be found in staying true to yourself, and it’s something Riley basks in here.
HiTech was one of the year’s bolt-from-the-blue records – an immediate underground classic that arrived fully formed, from nowhere, with zero context or fanfare. The duo, made up of Detroit artists Milf Melly and King Milo, had hitherto been making ripples in the local rap and hip-hop scene – so how did they come to land on Omar S’s FXHE imprint? According to the artists, HiTech is their attempt at writing a ‘techno’ record, but on first listen seems to have more in common with Chicago footwork, running at a nippy 150 bpm and packed with jittery vocal chops. Its steady pulse and melodic core, however, keep it rooted firmly in Motor City. The album’s hyperactive, jitting beats are steeped in syrupy, loungey chords, like a ghetto-funk reimagining of James Stinson’s Detroit classic, Lifestyles of the Laptop Café. The result is upfront, raw and endlessly addictive.
Man With the Magic Soap
Both the dancefloor and the moshpit offer vital spaces for catharsis. Persher, the latest collaborative project of producers Blawan and Pariah, know this intersection well. Two lifelong fans of heavy music, both artists have found refuge in extreme sounds. From the off, Man With the Magic Soap is unrelenting. Guttural vocals and a wall of industrial noise open the title track, both defining sonic features across the release. The crackling half-time sludge of Calf struts with a menacing grin; World Sandwiches 2’s pounding kick drums perfectly coalesce with its overdriven buzzsaw riff; and the ravey Ten Tiny Teeth is, at points, reminiscent of The Prodigy. This unsettling intensity is augmented by the pair’s process – taking the traditional studio setup and employing it as a warped sampler. Colliding hardcore with hardware, Persher deliver playful and surreal extremes on this mischievous debut.
I Love You Jennifer B
Rough Trade Records
London duo Jockstrap’s debut album, I Love You Jennifer B, is a playful but eerie celebration of pop, absurdism, trip-hop, experimental electronics, and chamber music, all melded together – and always taking you down winding and unexpected paths. Is it divisive? A little. Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye have no qualms about embracing theatricality. But where many bands affect a taste for the weird, you sense Jockstrap are real deal oddballs. Take, for example, their disconcerting eroticism (with lines like “I can be a stripper if you want me to” on Jennifer B or, more unsettlingly, “I touch myself, everytime I see what’s missing from my life” on Glasgow), or the way Bollywood exuberance meets musings on grief on Debra. Perhaps the most memorable track, Concrete Over Water, is a curio that flits between tender, minimalist ballad and thrusting cinematic epic. Suffice to say, in 2022, nobody else sounded like Jockstrap. Nobody else would dare.
The word “immersive” is thrown around freely nowadays, but when discussing the third album by Strasbourg-born artist Roméo Poirier, it still feels apt. Not only because underwater speakers and hydrophones were used in the record’s creation, but because Poirier’s practice involves returning to his own ever-growing archive of self-recorded loops, gifting his work with a circularity: sound as ecosystem. Fittingly, his palette evokes the organic world. You can practically smell the ozone with Statuario, its pensive keys and swaying clarinet approximating ocean swell, while Visiona teems with verdant detail like distant trumpet calls and ambiguous percussive tics (there are echoes of Jon Hassell throughout the record). Porte contre’s sub frequencies and muffled, watery pulse calls to mind, perhaps, the first music we encounter, in utero. Even the album’s ending feels delightfully unfinal. This, then, is music to take you outside of time.
They Hate Change
When genre fluidity is the rule rather than the exception, artists need more than a scatter graph of references to really stand out – they need heart. On Finally, New, the Tampa rap duo of Vonne Parks and Andre Gainey had it in spades. Employing a cross-section of genres – drum’n’bass, footwork, Miami bass – to serve as vital dancefloor foil to their hard-edged, East Coast-indebted rap, it’s not the breadth of references that impresses as much as the depth: the heartfelt sonic homages to their hometown peppered throughout, the shoutouts to 100 gecs’ Laura Les and 60s trans soul singer Jackie Shane on Some Days I Hate My Voice, the reference to Brian Eno’s gold tooth on X-Ray Spex (itself another reference). Being a music geek, a true-blue music geek, has never sounded so cool.
鵱騝栖湇嬣问藸鎏夆谣 (Chang Zhe Na Wu Ren Wen Jin De Ge Yao)
For the best part of a decade, Organ Tapes has been steadily homing in on a particular aesthetic – or perhaps a certain feeling – which he grasped with both hands on his seventh (and best) album to date. Its Chinese-language title translates to “sing the song that no one cares about”, and indeed these tracks sound like half-forgotten recordings retrieved from a lost box of DATs: smudged and smeared, buried under a thick layer of hiss and noise. But hidden beneath its murky surface are all of the key components of the most evocative pop and R&B records: heart-bursting Auto-Tuned vocals, soaring strings and timeless, arpeggiated guitar hooks. Lead single Heaven Can Wait alone is enough to warrant the album’s place on this list – the kind of devastating bedroom pop gem that we’ll keep in our playlists for years to come, returning to for the purpose of self-flagellation in our most fragile moments.
Versions of Modern Performance
Chicago teens Horsegirl haven’t exactly reinvented the wheel with their debut but they have bottled the dizzying highs of 90s alt-rock to create something that feels imbued with the heady excitement of youth (tellingly, the album is produced by John Agnello, with added instrumentation from some of the band’s heroes, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley.) Luckily, Horsegirl are at their most charming when they wear their influences on their sleeve, whether it be stoner grunge on Option 8, piercing shoegaze on Bog Bog 1, or particularly moody post-punk on Anti-glory. But the pleasures of reference-spotting pale in comparison to the lower-key joys encoded into Penelope Lowenstein and Nora Cheng’s patchwork of found phrases and abstract imagery (like the boy “in preparation to be crucified” on ride-with-the-top-down highlight, Billy). Make no mistake, Horsegirl are more than just competent students – they’re inheritors, not impersonators.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
Top Dawg Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar returns after five years and, guess what, he has a lot to get off his chest. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a sprawling, complex work from a rap titan, addressing unresolved trauma, survivor’s guilt and identity issues. Rhythmic jazz motifs and sombre piano riffs interlace with bars about generational curses on the Sampha-assisted Father Time. N95 is a bristling takedown of cancel culture and celebrity lashed to a skittering trap beat (“Take off the money phone/ Take off the car loan/ Take off the flex and the white lies”). Meanwhile, the slow-burning Mother I Sober – featuring Portishead’s Beth Gibbons – sees Kendrick confront his troubled family history with searing honesty (“Mother’s brother said he got revenge for my mother’s face/ Black and blue, the image of my queen that I can’t erase”). This album isn’t without its flaws and contradictions but you sense there’s a larger purpose at play: a need to confound, provoke, challenge. Kendrick is not your saviour.
Any form of radical self-expression in Uganda is in itself a political act. Earlier this year, the Nyege Nyege Festival was almost shut down completely when a local MP derided it as being “a breeding ground for sexual immorality”. Authentically Plastic’s debut embodies the country’s artistic and cultural friction; in spite of East Africa’s post-colonial religious conservatism, there’s a rich history of rhythmic experimentation for artists to draw from that has existed outside of the Western gaze. In the case of Authentically Plastic, they combine hard rhythms with prismatic unpredictability, embracing chance and intensity in an attempt to query mainstream dance music’s tiresome preoccupation with depth. This self-described “sonic flatness” provides Authentically Plastic’s productions with concrete immediacy that’s impossible not to interpret as activism. Raw Space is a loud proclamation of the fabulousness of their existence, a hard-hitting queer treatise that blooms with the loud vibrancy of a bouquet of flowers lashed to a hand grenade.
As you edge towards Nymph’s halfway point, somewhere between the cool seduction of Shlut and the cheekily sweet Coochie (a bedtime story), you’ll find Firefly. Bringing to mind the sun-kissed deep house of Lost Frequencies or Edward Maya, the song’s sonics aren’t exactly typical of Shygirl, who’s better known for beats that rumble rather than float. However, it shines a light on the silky nature of her debut album. The appeal of Shygirl stems from the way she defies her alias; shyness is not something you’d attribute to the same person boasting “hands on my breast and my batty like he knew it” on the thrillingly minimal Nike. Nymph, however, reveals the vulnerable soul underneath the bravado. “When will you see it from my side?/ I can have it all but I’m never satisfied,” she sings on vulnerable R&B album opener, Woe, setting the tone for a disarmingly intimate album that tells us more about the human beneath.
“No obedezco a tu verdad lineal/ Romperé tu narrativa/ Y alteraré tu paisaje aplanado,” Lucrecia Dalt whispers over skeletal conga rolls on El Galatzó. “I don’t obey your linear truth, I’ll break your narrative, and alter your flattened landscape.” The Colombian artist has spent much of her career examining how identity, human consciousness and the natural world interact. On ¡Ay!, her transcendental eighth album, she renders this practice flesh and blood. Inspired by the sounds of her childhood, Dalt has created an ode to the folkloric sounds of Latin America. Here, the sensual physicality of bolero – a genre pioneered by 19th-century Black Cubans – is on full display. La desmesura and Atemporal almost taunt in their glacial pace, as elongated flutes and clarinets swirl around a slow son rhythm. Bochinche, a pan-Latin colloquialism for party, is just that: a gleeful celebration of our culture, rebuking the restrictive expectations of Western experimentalism. By celebrating her own musical lineage, Dalt has opened a portal to new futures.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Binker and Moses
Feeding the Machine
Not so long ago, Binker Golding and Moses Boyd helped to define and amplify New London Jazz. On Feeding the Machine, they reinvigorated the scene once more. Recorded, chopped up and reassembled with the help of producer and bassist Max Luthert – who fed the duo’s raw, improvised takes through layers of tape machines and modular synths – it’s an album like no other in either musician’s discography. The first half of the album is sparse and a little alienating; ripples of saxophone and drums fade in and out as if ricocheting off the walls of an abandoned warehouse. About midway through, though, the cogs lock into place, and the grooves start to churn, with the head-nodding rhythms of Accelerometer Overdose and After the Machine Settles pointing to the influence hip-hop and UK rap has had on Boyd’s dynamic drumming. Deftly layered and intricately constructed, Feeding the Machine is an electrifying glimpse into the future of jazz – and a hint at where the sound could be headed next.
There is a juddering uncertainty that seethes beneath the surface of Fontaines D.C.’s third album in four years. The majority of the Dublin post-punk band had moved to London by the time they started making Skinty Fia, resulting in lead vocalist Grian Chatten considering his Irishness in a city that he often felt othered in. Themes of diasporic identity and politics sit alongside sepia-tinged songs about yearning and intimacy. On I Love You, Chatten blasts the Irish government and their complicity in child abuse over crashing guitars; The Couple Across the Way is an accordion-propelled standout that ruminates on ageing and old love; In ár gCroíthe go deo, in its hymnal splendour, is a tribute to Margaret Keane, a prominent woman in Coventry’s Irish community whose family was denied an Irish epitaph by the council for fear of provocation. In all its raw, tangled complexities, Skinty Fia is a document of displacement but also resilience.
On her debut album, Ariel Zetina evokes the concept of a cyclorama – the name of the large, curving backdrop that creates the illusion of depth on stage – for an immersive exploration of the realities of being a trans woman of colour navigating a landscape of racial and cisheteronormative oppression. Supported by an ensemble cast drawn from the queer community that she’s a part of, the Chicago-based producer creates a defiant portrait of her identity, interlacing her ancestral Belizean punta and brukdown with robust techno kicks and sprightly house rhythms. On Have You Ever, which features fellow Chicagoan Cae Monāe, she asks, “Daddy, have you ever been with a girl like me before?” Similarly, Chasers – a term for cis people who fetishise trans folks – evokes the frenzied pace of a racing video game, illustrating the turbulence trans people often face. Cyclorama is an interrogation of queerness, but it is also a sanctuary – a space celebrating transformation and joy.
Rachel Grace Almeida
On Paste, Moin sculpt a poised post-hardcore sound collage. A fittingly autumnal release, the record evokes introspection and nostalgia that draws on the likes of Slint, Sonic Youth and Fugazi. The second record from the London-based trio made up of drummer Valentina Magaletti and Raime’s Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead, Paste arrived almost a decade after their self-titled debut. Time hasn’t diminished the trio’s propensity for wry humour and measured sparsity, but the effect is doubly potent here due to their embrace of spoken word, as samples of underground poets and artists seep through fuzz-laden riffs, droning basslines and sparse drumming. It’s not just guitar band references that prevail, nor their skillful cut-and-paste techniques, but also the thick, dub-infused atmosphere suspended across the record – intangible, sensate – that draws you into the world of Paste and fixes you there. It’s a raw and transportative listen that is at once comforting and ominous.
Yesterday Is Heavy
Nobody could have guessed what Lil Silva’s debut album was going to sound like. Ten-plus years into his career, he had journeyed through funky, grime, garage and dubstep. During that time, he’s been locked in studio sessions with Damon Albarn, serpentwithfeet, Kano and Adele. In short, his dexterous production ability and pop songwriting ingenuity has been pulled in myriad directions as one of the country’s most consistent collaborators. But then came lockdown, time away from touring and a demanding studio schedule, and a chance to find his own sound. His long-awaited full-length, Yesterday Is Heavy, is an inventive, cohesive and deeply soulful product of years spent with ravers and pop stars alike. Vocals from Sampha, Charlotte Day Wilson and Silva himself interplay with kinetic beats taking cues from all corners of UK dancefloors, delivered with a textural richness and warmth that is earned from operating in blockbuster spaces. Consistency is great, but mastery is better.
Who is a motomami? According to Rosalía, she’s got the body of a butterfly, her motorcycle helmet is her favourite accessory, and she always orders dessert. But most important of all: no one can fuck with her. So when the Spanish star released her third album, MOTOMAMI, it was a self-portrait as much as a warning shot. A pop vocalist and deft producer, Rosalía created this album as a feminist counterbalance to the misogyny she faces in the industry – and she had fun doing it. MOTOMAMI plays out like a variety show, where vignettes of love and loss are punctuated by playful interludes that sound like voicenotes sent from the club. Como un G tenderly confronts the headrush of love over cloudy keys; Abcdefg lists off an alphabet of influences from banditry to Willie Colón; the minimalist dembow of La Combi Versace, Diablo and Candy (which expertly samples Burial’s Archangel) are reminders that this motomami still gets down. And holding it all together is Rosalía, the peerless innovator who never wavers.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Daughters of Cain
The gospel of Ethel Cain is served with a side of motel room eroticism, Marlboro Reds and nightmarish vignettes that blur the lines between fantasy and reality. This cinematic, grubby and hallucinatory approach is what makes the singer’s debut album, Preacher’s Daughter, a masterpiece of Southern Gothic. It’s also why Cain is the most spellbinding artist of 2022.
Over the past few years, due in no small part to the pandemic, there’s been an overwhelming draw to “sad girl” music which teems with anxiety and longing for a different time. At the sound’s core is a search for catharsis, something artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, for instance, have embedded in keenly self-aware lyrics that have become a balm for many.
So it makes sense that, on a surface level, this nascent iconoclast falls into the category, too. But look deeper and Hayden Silas Anhedönia, the artist behind Ethel Cain, is unlike any other pop star out there. Anhedönia is a trans woman who grew up in the Southern Baptist community, and who came to prominence while living in rural Alabama. It was back in 2018 that she first conceptualised her witchy alter ego as a form of escapism from the tumult of her teenage years, and as a way to process her queerness. Like Anhedönia, Cain has long, dark brown hair, a pious, conservative upbringing and a desire to grapple with the after-effects of trauma. But Cain is also larger than life: part aspirational vision, part monstrous warning sign for what could have been – someone destroyed by the crushing weight of purity and perfection.
In 2021, she released her third EP, Inbred, which marked Cain’s breakout moment, blending her Tumblr girl aesthetic with the aching prose and folk impulse of Lana Del Rey. Within the six-song project, there were moody tales of sex, religion and violence drenched in dreamy soundscapes, satisfying listeners with the lore of Ethel Cain but leaving enough intrigue to keep them wondering.
The release of Anhedönia’s debut album, Preacher’s Daughter, revealed Cain’s final fate. Here, Anhedönia strayed largely from the glamorisation of the American Dream and instead leaned into tragic storytelling. American Teenager, the second track from the album, is an anthemic pop centrepiece. Flanked by an explosive chorus that could have easily soundtracked a John Hughes movie, Cain mourns the people who sacrificed themselves for a place that doesn’t care if they live or die: “The neighbour’s brother came home in a box/ But he wanted to go so maybe it was his fault/ Another red heart taken by the American dream.” The song – bathed in dreamy reverb – allows optimism to take root in her melancholia, reminiscent of Sharon Van Etten’s Seventeen or the open-hearted spirit of Bruce Springsteen.
From there, the album traverses ambient folk with swelling vocals and spirals into epic guitar riffs that romanticise and deconstruct American life in equal measure. Despite the opening of Preacher’s Daughter implying something more widescreen – a silver-plated pop sound Anheonia could have ridden to huge success – the LP is not full of variations on American Teenager. Instead, it’s a 75-minute saga (cut from two hours) that tells the story of a woman battling religious trauma and sexual violence, and confronting her abusive father – before meeting a horrifying death.
Across the choral-like A House in Nebraska, Cain navigates the turmoil of a doomed romance and the religious guilt that is woven into the tapestry of her life: “You know, I still wait at the edge of town/ Praying straight to God that maybe you’ll come back around.” She continues to wade through the stain of cult Christianity in a slow-burning, ominous soundscape on Family Tree. “These crosses all over my body/ Remind me of who I used to be/ Let Christ forgive these bones I’ve been hiding/ And the bones I’m about to leave.” Hard Times, a wistful bedroom pop song detailing chilling abuse, stuns with its candour: “In the corner, on my birthday, you watched me/ Dancing right there in the grass/ I was too young to notice/ That some types of love could be bad.”
As the album’s final act approaches, the story becomes more harrowing, and so does the tone. On Ptolemaea, Cain enters heady territory and lets her anguish run rampant as bursts of doom metal guitars work to paint a portrait of her imminent death. “Suffering is nigh, drawing to me/ Calling me the one, I’m the white light/ Beautiful, finite,” she concedes. The closing songs – country power ballad Sun Bleached Flies and the grunge-tinged hymnal, Strangers – are her final attempts to find peace as a “freezer bride”, still grappling with her shaky relationship with religion, right up to the very end.
Preacher’s Daughter is an opus that builds – and concludes – the mythology of Ethel Cain while breaking apart the old myths of the land. By surveying the American South in all its understated beauty and horror, Anhedönia has drawn out an American nightmare. And at the centre of it all is Cain, the brave, benevolent woman that gripped the world by its heart.