Few Good Things
(Saba Pivot, LLC)
A highlight of this year’s hip-hop releases, Saba‘s Few Good Things is a brilliant conscious rap album, one bursting at the seams with character and soul. The Chicago native’s third full-length is the most full-bodied work of his career thus far, jam-packed full of ideas and invention. Few Good Things‘ colorful, pathos-leaden ambition has seen its creator compared to rap auteurs such as Chance the Rapper and Andre 3000, and it’s easy to see why. Soulful charmers “Fearmonger” and “Make Believe” sit comfortably alongside the heavier “If I Had a Dollar” and “Survivor’s Guilt”, a combination that gives Few Good Things the feel of a full-bodied future classic. – Tom Morgan
(Bargain Bin Records)
As IDLES get more and more serious with each release, there’s a void that calls for a band that’s capable of metaphorically either breaking your bones while tickling your funny bone at the same time. Enter the Chats, specifically their second album Get Fucked. The riffs are about as subtle as the title, and for 27 minutes, you’re treated to pogoing odes to literally getting struck by lightning to spitting laments about how “the price of smokes are going up again.”
The Australian “shed” rockers make few adjustments from their 2020 debut High Risk Behavior, but Get Fucked proves there’s still plenty of material that can be mined from being broke, run-ins with the law, and class resentment. If you’re a fan of brutal, hard-edged punk, Get Fucked doesn’t offer too much in the way of new surprises, but it’s delivered with such gleeful confidence that you don’t care if the tune is familiar. The Chats provide a much-needed, cathartic jolt of joy with just the right amount of sneering, nihilistic anger. – Sean McCarthy
If it existed, Suede would definitely be in the running for the Comeback Kids Award (UK) 2022. True, the Britpop trailblazers of old may only have released their last album in 2018, but there’s an unmistakable air of them reclaiming their throne and becoming properly relevant again on their ninth LP, Autofiction. They announced it with the mighty singles “She Still Leads Me On” (bang!) and “15 Again” (bang!), both of which possessed not only pop genius but also a newfound punk spirit and a sound surprisingly tantamount to goth-rock. Brett Anderson belted out big choruses with the same power and passion he had in 1993, while Richard Oakes attacked his guitar with savage gusto. Both, too, had clearly tapped into a new well of inspiration as the core songwriters in the group, perhaps from listening to the Sisters of Mercy.
The quality of the two singles happily extends to the other nine tracks here, with none of that lackluster “She’s in Fashion” stuff that led to Suede slipping down festival line-ups in the 2000s. “That Boy on the Stage” crackles with glam guitars, “Personality Disorder” is gleefully unhinged and angsty, and “Shadow Self” rides a sublime bassline and moody, spoken-word verses, while offering the mother of all goth lyrics in “I’ll dance with my shadow self”. The pace only really lets up for “Drive Myself Home”, but that’s okay when it’s a prime slice of break-up Suede, with minor-key piano parts, stirring strings, and all. In fact, this back-to-basics approach very much recalls a revitalized R.E.M. on their 14th album Accelerate. But while that turned out to be almost the end of something, this feels very much like the beginning of something. – Adam Mason
Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway
Molly Tuttle sure can play bluegrass-style guitar clean and fast. The award-winning Instrumentalist can crank out hot licks from the start of a song until the end without ever missing a note, and she’s not alone. While Tuttle’s previous two records were credited to her as a solo artist, Crooked Tree features a full-blown string band. The folk-based country songs are topical and range from the personal to the degradation of the environment to tributes to women who couldn’t be limited to societal expectations to growing marijuana in what used to be a bootlegger’s hidden farm and more. Tuttle co-wrote all 13 songs on the record. Their common theme, as alluded to in the title track, is the importance of retaining one’s own identity and being true to oneself.
Tuttle has a plain voice that suggests she is the everywoman of her songs. When the music is slow, as in “San Francisco Blues”, she emphasizes the emotional aspects of the song. She can yodel or growl when needed in service of the material, but she doesn’t show off as much vocally as she and the band do when playing. They routinely hit the strings at top speed with hooks and filigrees that make one lose one’s breath, especially on songs like “She’ll Change” and “Dooley’s Farm”. The album packs a strong punch! – Steve Horowitz
St. Paul & the Broken Bones
The Alien Coast
The eight-piece American soul band St. Paul & The Broken Bones threw the gauntlet down early in 2022 with the January release of their first album for their new label ATO Records, The Alien Coast. Those previously swayed by St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ prowess as a proto-soul band powered by frontman Paul Janeway’s emotive, bluesy vocals could be jarred momentarily by the new album’s protean content. The Alien Coast is a fever dream for our times, powering through the edges of reality with—as the band describes it—a “…convergence of soul and psychedelia, stoner metal and funk”. It’s a bold and risky move.
The Birmingham, Alabama band set aside their trademark sensual, swaying soul for more discordant, “apocalyptic dance moves”. In the absence of their trademark horn section, slinky, ominous bass lines ecstatically interact with a Korg Minilogue analog synthesizer. At the same time, the tracks trade on themes of civilizational death, disinterested deities, the allure of evil in 15th-century Spanish art, Greek mythological depictions of our inner torments, and the disruptive geographical naming of colonialist endeavors (the “Alien Coast”). Pulsing throughout this seeming cacophony of themes and sounds is the loss of and longing for human connection. At the end of the day, we’re all we have. It is a statement album that rewards multiple attentive listens. – Rick Quinn
Guided By Voices
Crystal Nuns Cathedral
Guided By Voices have been on a roll. Since assembling a new lineup in 2016 or 2017, Robert Pollard’s gaggle of critical indie darlings have released a whopping 13 new albums (two of them on double vinyl) with a new one slated for 2023. That wouldn’t be so impressive if each album was just a hodge-podge collection full of lazy ideas meant to pad them out, but that’s not the case. Sure, Robert Pollard writes a borderline insane number of songs each year, but this new lineup has the chops to justify each one’s existence.
Of their two 2022 albums, which is better – Crystal Nuns Cathedral or Tremblers and Goggles by Rank? When the results are this good, it just doesn’t matter. Going on gut impulse, Crystal Nuns Cathedral wins out this round. The moment “Excited Ones” hits your ears, you just know it’s going to be the new “Glad Girls”. “Never Mind the List” and “Re-Develop” come in right behind it with enough garage energy to keep the entire album in flight for its 38 minutes. All told, there are no duds on Crystal Nuns Cathedral, which for some is all you need for a year-end highlight. Pollard and company go the extra mile by giving it their all. – John Garratt
If My Wife New I’d Be Dead
On her debut release, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, Ireland’s Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson sings about moving to “Nashville”, becoming a global pop star, having an affair with film director “Peter Bogdanovich”, and wanting to be a cowboy. Her mixed pop and country music references are by turns comic and cosmic. She’s seriously funny as she proclaims her daddy issues and need for alcohol. Sure she’s “Lonely”, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to settle for less than being glamorously famous. She’s nakedly ambitious with a sense of humor about her aspirations, sex drive, and need for real love. CMAT cites Dolly Parton and Katy Perry as her inspirations, and her music does seem to fall somewhere in between theirs.
CMAT’s boastful fantasies are grounded in the fact that they are shared by the public. Who doesn’t want to be rich and renowned for being oneself? She pokes fun at the distance between herself and her dreams. She laments her failures and keeps on pushing with a crooked smile on her face. Like Dolly and Katy, she has a big personality. We root for her even as we shake our heads at her silliness.
CMAT has a big voice. She sings in all capital letters. Her charisma flows from her willingness to be ridiculous and sincere. She has a sense of humor and self-consciously berates herself when her jokes don’t land. Her songs shift from laughably sad to preposterously serious. One cannot always tell if she’s having a mental breakdown or a breakthrough. However, a listener cannot help but want to sing along. – Steve Horowitz
White Jesus Black Problems
The title of Fantastic Negrito’s fourth album, White Jesus Black Problems, arrests the attention before one removes the disc from its sleeve. Once the needle meets the groove, it doesn’t let go. The creativity of this project is dizzying. Inspired by the artist’s discovery within his lineage of a courageous love story seven generations removed from today, the album gives voice to wrestling with white supremacy across generations. Songs with titles like “Highest Bidder”, “Venomous Dogma”, and “You Don’t Belong Here” blur the boundaries of past and present. The guiding story illumines themes of racial capitalism, where auction blocks adapt and persist in tension with challenges enacted by the free decision to love another human being.
Musically, the album provokes vertigo in its expansiveness, weaving influences of funk, blues, gospel, and joyous soul throughout. White Jesus Black Problems contains echoes of Sly and the Family Stone (in both their joyous soul-pop and the muddy, moodiness of There’s A Riot Goin On) in conversation with the Afro-Futurist space rock of George Clinton and Parliament alongside resonances of Leadbelly, James Brown, and Prince. Within this rich polyphonic legacy are sprinkled Pink Floyd sound effects, Beatles’ psychedelia, and nods to the country rhythms of American roots music. It is a joyous, profound testament to love and freedom on one of the best albums to emerge in 2022. – Rick Quinn
Harry Styles’ existing fanbase needed no introduction when he launched a solo career, but his trajectory into a sound that appeals to both teen and adult contemporary demographic places him among few other modern pop artists, safe for perhaps Stevie Nicks, Shania Twain, or Adele. Harry’s House is composed of comforting numbing pop and needs no justification in an anxious age such as our own, but for Styles, his propensity for eclectic influences remains front and center on a folk and funk-inspired record.
But there are moments where he drops the so-called façade, getting intimate with the listener in a way he hasn’t before. Against the backdrop of an acoustic guitar, he sings and pleads with a young woman to escape her unloving family on “Matilda”, whose namesake easily lends itself to the Road Dahl character of the same name. Elsewhere, he employs a random and loose style of songwriting to form poetic glimpses into life on “Cinema” and “Satellite”, and “Late Night Talking” serves as the perfect second single for an album that would have otherwise been cast aside as more Gen Z bedroom pop if it hadn’t been made by a wide talent such as Harry Styles. – Jeffrey Davies
Regardless of which stage of sobriety Demi Lovato was in during which recording process, it’s more than clear that Holy Fvck was the album they needed to make, part of a process of grief, mourning, and healing. Billed as a highly anticipated return to their pop-rock roots, the record is in fact an edgy and emotive hard rock album that is a refined and sophisticated collection of songs. Although Lovato’s fanbase has long yearned for a return to “Rockvato”, their affectionate nickname for their Disney pop-rock days, Holy Fvck is far from that.
Instead, it’s the emo-punk persona that the singer has spent most of their life building, and the one they needed to release in order to heal from trauma and anger. These emotions culminate most on tracks like “Eat Me” and “29″, the latter of which deals with the inappropriate circumstances surrounding one of their long-term public relationships. If anything, Holy Fvck proves that maybe it was Lovato’s pop albums that were the fluff, and this is the substance—pun very much intended—that they’ve been looking for. – Jeffrey Davies