If 2021 largely felt like a repeat of 2020, then 2022 by contrast was when we returned to some semblance of normalcy. Sure, COVID didn’t go away, but workers returned to offices, travel restrictions were lifted, and finally, bands were able to tour and we were able to go see them play. As for the recorded music released into the world this past year, much of it was the end product of working remotely and using creative means to record. But as much I’d like to connect the dots between my favorite records of the year with some overarching theme reflecting the insularity of the environs in which they were manifested, there simply isn’t one. The records that stuck out were as individualistic as the best from pre-pandemic years. Each was compelling for the unique sonic world it constructed and which we were privileged to occupy for a brief moment.
Ernest Jenning Record Co./Olive Grove Records
After initially being introduced by Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee (of The Vaselines), Carla Easton (of TeenCanteen) and Simon Liddell (of Frightened Rabbit) created their self-titled Poster Paints debut collaborating remotely during the pandemic, soliciting contributions from Jonny Scott (of CHVRCHES) and Andy Monaghan (of Frightened Rabbit), as well as members of the Arab Strap touring band, among others. Given the pedigrees of those involved, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the album is a stunner, but Easton is the star here. Her crystalline voice rings out amongst the record’s at times nubilous atmospherics, as on “Still Got You,” where she sings, “I’ve still got you on the tip of my tongue,” to a paramour she can’t quite forget. The album’s swirl of pop melodies, reverberating guitar notes, and cracking beats is just as beguiling as Easton’s voice, and one can only hope this isn’t just a one-off project.
To someone who grew up having to save his paper route money to buy records, it sometimes feels like the kids have it easy these days. But just because you have the universe of music at your fingertips doesn’t mean you know what’s worth hearing. The teenagers in Chicago trio Horsegirl have seemingly got the algorithm right, channeling a host of indie rock influences (Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Unwound and other Kill Rock Stars highlights) that predate their birthdates. But while the fact that Steve Shelley and Lee Renaldo play on a couple of tracks and that the album was released by Matador further solidifies the ‘90s vibe, this fortunately isn’t some tired retread. Instead, the Horsegirl girls have filtered their points of reference through a lens of their own, making music fittingly fresh-faced and irresistible.
Longtime Agit fav Zola Jesus has always had a penchant for the dramatic, which is fitting given her operatic training. But that predilection has never been as vividly displayed as on this past year’s Arkhon. As song titles like “Lost,” “The Fall,” and “Into the Wild” might indicate, the record is something of a transformative journey that ebbs and flows as it unfolds. With percussionist Matt Chamberlain providing a propulsive backbeat throughout, the album feels very primal both sonically and emotionally, so that when Zola sings, “Lick my wounds like you can taste them. Would it make much of a difference if you knew my pain?”on the elegiac “Desire,” it feels like she’s tapped a vein. With multiple crescendos throughout the record and Zola’s voice seemingly always reaching for some precipice, the album is catharsis incarnate.
Arriving on a wave of attention created by lead single “Chaise Lounge,” late-night TV appearances, and a soldout US tour, Wet Leg’s self-titled debut (fortunately) lived up to the hype. Indeed, the album was everything that first single was—smart, catchy, inherently cool—and more. Channeling everyone from Elastica to The Breeders, the Isle of Wight duo—Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers—creates songs that seem light as air and at once inherently brash. On the leadoff “Being in Love,” Teasdale sings, “I feel like someone has punched me in the guts, but I kinda like it ‘cause it feels like being in love” atop chirping synth touches and waves of fuzzy guitar. The song lasts all of two minutes but conveys the endorphin rush of its subject matter perfectly. Similarly, on “Loving You,” Teasdale sings, “I used to love you like you wanted me to. Now I wanna hate you like I tell you I do” with the perfect amount of sweetness and spite followed by some la-la-las for effect. Wet Leg is perfect pop, with its tongue in its cheek in all the right spots.
Last year’s end-of-the-year list had an abundance of Australian artists (and Amyl and the Sniffers’ latest probably should have been on there too). That’s not the case this year, but the land down under is still well-represented by bratty punk trio The Chats. The Aussie band’s second album is everything you want in a punk record: loud, brash, and fast. But the band has plenty of catchy hooks and lyrical smarts in its arsenal as well. The leadoff “6L GTR” is perhaps the best of the bunch, big meaty guitar riffs played at speed and matched with lyrics spelling out a muscle car fantasy and sung in Aussie dialect. The rest of the record exhibits similar musical traits while tackling subjects like the rising cost of cigarettes (“The Price of Smokes”) and getting drunk in every pub in Brisbane (“I’ve Been Drunk in Every Pub in Brisbane”). It’s an album that’s hard not to love.
The fourth album from Warpaint was long in coming—six years to be exact—as a result of starting recording pre-pandemic only to be forced to shift gears and work remotely during lockdown. The time spent on Radiate Like This was clearly worth it, however. The album is a mesmerizing mix of dusky aesthetics, both electronic and au natural sounds, and the beguiling vocals of all four members. Building slowly from the minimalist mantra of “Champion” (“I’m a champion. I’m a champion.”), the record soon blossoms on “Hard to Tell You” to occupy a unique sonic space while echoing luminaries as wide-ranging as the Cocteau Twins, The Sundays, and All About Eve. The record reaches its apex on “Like Sweetness,” where a mix of bass and synth coalesce to create a brooding foundation on which Emily Kokal posits, “Our fate just takes time… I’ll wait forever.” Few records were this enchanting this year.
As it had been seven years since Dungen’s last proper record, 2015’s Allas Sak, you would be forgiven if (like me) you had forgotten about the Swedish psych maestros. Fortunately, the band has seemingly never allowed the dust to settle. The album, whose title translates to “one is too much and a thousand is never enough,” is perhaps the best record the group has made since 2004’s breakout, Ta det lugnt. While it exhibits all the lysergic earmarks of the Dungen oeuvre, it also is infused with a good deal of inventiveness as well as a healthy dose of pop smarts. Leadoff single “Nattens Sistat Strimma Ljus” (‘the night’s last shimmer of light’) is lead by a phased guitar line and a shuffling beat, the combination of the two potent enough to be addictive as any mind-altering substance. Meanwhile, “Höstens Färger” could be The Beatles had they sung in Swedish, piano and guitars melding into what can only be described as a pop song—and a brilliant one at that. Dungen has seemingly pushed itself outside of its own comfort zone, and we are lucky enough to reap the rewards.
It’s tempting to call Spoon’s latest a return to form, but aside from a couple of mediocre albums midway through their career, the band has been consistently releasing solid records for nearly 30 years. That said, Lucifer on the Sofa does feel like a return to the lean sound of breakout albums like Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight. Thank producer Mark Rankin who has rendered Britt Daniel’s voice bone dry and placed it upfront with his Telecaster, so even though the record has plenty of other sounds in the mix, it doesn’t feel particularly ornate. This Albini-esque aesthetic is upheld throughout the album, giving it a briny punch that’s only offset by the sweetness of softer moments like album highlight “My Babe.” As such, every utterance on Lucifer seems purposeful, and with the album clocking in at just 10 tracks and 39 minutes, it’s obvious this record was edited to its essentials. The end result is exactly that: an album that is Spoon boiled down to its principal elements and a record that is outright indispensable.
Capitalizing on the promise of its debut, Wednesday, Just Mustard returned with a tsunami of a second record. Taking cues from shoegaze luminaries like fellow countrymen My Bloody Valentine and, perhaps even more so, Cranes, the Irish five-piece crafted a record layered in sonic textures that at times seem to grind against one another while simultaneously juxtaposing with singer Katie Ball’s honey-coated vocals. This approach is best exemplified on “Seed” where bass rumbles churn against a primal beat and guitars slash in bolts. At times, it is Ball’s voice that does the slashing, as on “Early,” where her caterwaul contrasts with the muted backing. Listening to Heart Under is like entering a sonic black hole, a realm unpenetratable by light or other sounds, and when you emerge on the other side it’s impossible not to have been changed in some way.
Having released a truly astonishing debut (one of our favorites of 2019), Crows might have easily fallen into a sophomore slump, especially with the pandemic taking the wind out of many a band’s sails and making the mere act of creation all the more difficult. But from the first ringing, lysergic notes of Beware Believers, it is clear that the band is out for blood this time. The album comes on like a blast of white heat, taking the more vitriolic moments of Silver Tongues as a starting point for indulging their noisiest impulses. Singer James Cox seemingly had a few bees in his bonnet and you can hear it in songs like “Only Time,” where he rants, “I held my breath for so long now and I held my tongue for longer than I should have.” His vitriol is matched by his bandmates’ noisy emanations, cracking beats and a melee of guitar riffs creating a terse balance of tension and release. That tension is never relinquished, the album leaving the listener a little bruised and beaten—and all the better for it.