View With a Room
Julian Lage has released many fine albums, both as a bandleader and as a collaborator with pianist Fred Hersch and fellow guitarist Nels Cline. View With a Room, the meeting of his band with legendary six-string slinger Bill Frisell, is both a career highpoint and a top release for 2022. Lage and Frisell are the kind of dual-guitar team that easily complement one another rather than working against one another. Frisell’s easy blend of jazz and Americana provides a soft yin to Lage’s Les Paul (the guitarist, not necessarily the guitar) yang, helping even the most vibrantly boppy moments of View With a Room go down easy, like “Word for Word” and “Heart Is a Drum”.
The pre-released song “Auditorium” captures the best of both worlds by distilling both guitarists’ approaches into a smooth slice of modern jazz stuffed full of thick harmonies and impressive runs, all bolstered by the robust rhythm section of Jorge Roeder and Bad Plus drummer Dave King. “Fairbanks” finishes the album in fine contemporary fashion, playing a pleasantly dissonant figure over two shifting chords that shuffle off into the Alaskan sunset. Although Lage probably doesn’t necessarily need a collaborator to make one of the year’s best albums, the acknowledgment of one of his predecessors goes a long way here. – John Garratt
Anyone who pejoratively dismisses Confidence Man’s Tilt as being stupid is missing the point. The Brisbane-based indie-dance outfit’s 2018 debut album, Confident Music for Confident People was practically a concept album based on the vapidity of American pop culture, taken to an Aqua-esque extreme, but anchored by the polished dancefloor edge of LCD Soundsystem at their least pretentious. They practically begged for you not to take them seriously, all while knowing that everyone, secretly or not, wants to be them.
We all want to be that girl in the trending band or the guy at the cool party. We all want to be included and have fun. It may be stupid, but it’s also true, and if Trump has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of stupid. Stupid is getting shit done this millennium, and Tilt is stupid good.
If their debut landed more in a 2000s New York LCD art-loft vein, Tilt leans even further into a 1990s Deee-Lite vibe, itself a result of New York’s melting pot as a go-go dancer from Ohio and a couple of DJs from Japan and Russia found each other. Equally as anthemic as their debut, Tilt is askew with the sounds of classic disco-house piano, synthetic drum machine percussion, booming sub-bass, and the kind of wholesome synth leads Swedish producers Denniz Pop and Max Martin may have provided for peak-career Ace of Base.
The beats on Tilt were provided by producers Clarence McGuffie (Sam Hales) and Reggie Goodchild (Lewis Stephenson). They create the future-disco sandbox for vocalists Janet Planet (Grace Stephenson) and Sugar Bones (Aidan Moore) to work out their sultry dynamic, that kind of B-52s/Aqua thing with the over-the-top masculine presence and the kinky feminine, a playful give-and-take.
There’s a certain universality to their mindful mindlessness, the kind of vaguely romantic way that the Backstreet Boys might have wanted it, while the beats push you too quickly to ponder their meaning that deeply. Even the Le Tigre-tinged electro-pop of “Angry Girl” wants you to turn on, tune out, and drop booty. In a world of dwindling prospects, even a piece of glitter can seem like a shining light. Tilt is a glitter bomb, whenever one needs it. – Alan Ranta
Prequelle (2018) achieved what the hard-touring Ghost had been striving towards for years: firmly establishing the Swedes as one of the biggest bands in mainstream metal and hard rock. The only question that remained was whether or not impresario/singer/songwriter Tobias Forge had it in him to sustain the positive momentum in the wake of the global pandemic. What he and producer Klas Åhlund came up with for Impera was another clever hybrid of classic heavy metal, devilish blasphemy, and pop sensibility that sounds even tighter and leaves plenty of room for experimentation.
The ominous “Call Me Little Sunshine” and the wickedly catchy “Spillways” (the latest in a stunning run of tracks that owes its existence to the artful heavy rock of Blue Öyster Cult) lead the charge thanks to their undeniable hooks, but the deeper cuts reveal just how strong a songwriter Forge is. “Watcher in the Sky” is a spot-on homage to the 1980s riffery of the masterful Jake E. Lee, “Darkness at the Heart of My Love” blends contemporary pop production with gothic atmospherics, “Respite on the Spitalfields” hearkens to Ron Nevison’s crisp production of the mid-1980s (see Ozzy’s The Ultimate Sin and Heart’s Bad Animals), and the inventive social commentary of “Twenties”. Now a dozen years into this project, Forge is showing no signs of stagnating, always coming up with clever new ways to expand Ghost’s sound. – Adrien Begrand
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers play loud and fast rock and roll with a nasty country sneer. The ten songs on their latest record Nightroamer sound as if they are forgotten 45s from some roadhouse juke joint where people come to drink, dance, and fight in the parking lot as a way of wiping the dirt off the weekly grind from their lives. The instrumentation is unpretentious, and there are no showy solos. The lyrics are written in plain language. The pleasures are inherent in the music being what it is, delivered in an austere drawl with hard-strummed strings and a driving beat. Because there is nothing flashy about Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, it’s easy to overlook just how damn good they are, and this album is. It’s the musical equivalent of getting a shot and a beer at the neighborhood bar or burgers and fries at a local non-chain restaurant. – Steve Horowitz
Black Lips took their sweet time making their best album. Guitarist Cole Alexander and bassist Jared Swilley founded the lo-fi, alt-country, doom-glam psych-rock band in 1999. Apocalypse Love marked the 10th full-length studio attempt by the duo and their evolving supporting cast ever since. Featuring essential contributions from saxophonist Zumi Rosow, drummer Oakley Munson, and guitarist Jeff Clarke, and singing from everyone, the album channels the same punk-rock snarl they’ve always had, yet there is something extra about it even beyond their similarly themed 2020 album Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart. Perhaps the ongoing mass extinction event that humanity is attempting to survive is finally getting to them.
One of the most shockingly beautiful compositions, “Stolen Valor” showcases all the Americana songwriting chops of Cass McCombs or Blitzen Trapper, paired with the kind of ecstatic, uplifting piano heard on “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah famously heard on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. The lyrics are crudely incredible, as a character appears unapologetic about infidelity, “not looking for forgiveness / Unless she’s not satisfied.” The character’s actions should be irredeemable, yet that jangly piano lends it such a jaunty air.
The title track, “Apocalypse Love” has a fair amount of winking twang to it, though the love song takes on a more earnest feel as they sing about spending the end of days with their beloved partners. It’s like a sequel to “Eve of Destruction” as written by the Fugs. Keeping with the retro vibes, the trumpets on “Tongue Tied” would do Henry Mancini proud, while “Crying on a Plane” has a vibe lifted from Marc Bolan’s “Dandy of the Underworld,” that sort of big band, horn section, downtempo glam jam.
They hit some big marks on the album, but Black Lips get really weird too. “Sharing My Cream” is the most aggressive milkman tracks this side of “The Adventures of the Lactating Man” by Infinite Livez. The squawking saxophone matches the blunt absurdity of the vocals, while the drums have a programmed feel that make it all come together like Green Jelly on a kosmische tip. It’s one of those songs you can’t unhear after you’ve heard it, like an earmaggot rather than an earworm, though Apocalypse Love is rotten with juicy worms too.
With all of the myriad corners they explored, Black Lips created something that ranks among the best works of the Growlers, the Cramps, and Black Bananas. For all of their greatest hits, they finally made an album that will outlive us all, if there are still humans left on this planet to appreciate it. Apocalypse Love is the last album we need. – Alan Ranta
Alvvays – Blue Rev
Five tumultuous years after their second album Anticocialites, Molly Rankin and Alvvays roared back in 2022 with a record that took the Canadian band’s trademark fuzzed-out dream pop, gave it a glossy makeover, and resulted in a modern shoegaze classic. The way Rankin, lead guitarist Alec O’Hanley, and producer Shawn Everett accentuate sumptuous melodies with touches of drone, distorted guitars, and waves of thrumming feedback on tracks like “Pharmacist” and “Easy on Your Own?” elevates Alvvays to the woozy, stratospheric heights of My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive without ever compromising Rankin’s distinct songwriting style.
That the band recorded the bulk of the album in two blistering run-throughs in the studio adds a feeling of immediacy to the proceedings, yet at the same time, there are plenty of nuances to enjoy. Rankin’s sardonic yet sweet moments – often reminiscent of the late, great Kirsty MacColl – punctuate Blue Rev with plenty of gentle hooks, whether on “After the Earthquake”, “Very Online Guy”, or “Pressed”. Better yet, the record hits a glorious peak with the one-two punch of the spirited “Pomeranian Spinster” and the sweet “Belinda Says”, as endearing a song as Rankin has ever written. – Adrien Begrand
Burial‘s William Bevan might be a far less shadowy figure than he once was, but he bookended 2022 with some of the most night-steeped, fantastic music of his career. In this banner year for vampire studies, Burial’s ANTIDAWN EP is the most direct evidence yet of how creatures of the night inform his discography and his identity as a musician. Promoted with liner notes that hint at “something beckoning you to follow it into the night”, ANTIDAWN is indeed an album-length set of songs that repeat and vary what the night means to those alone or those in love.
A section of the first track “STRANGE NEIGHBOURHOOD” teases the listener with chords that might have been ripped from Fatboy Slim’s “Song for Shelter” before veering off in a decidedly different, less rhythmic direction than that anthem. This deemphasis on beats sets the pace for the rest of the EP, which unfolds as a series of fragments full of spoken/sung dialogue. The album’s centerpiece, “SHADOW PARADISE”, with a rising and falling organ line that envelops the listener, casts the darkness of night as a sanctuary rather than as a menacing absence of light.
Streetlands, Burial’s second EP of the year, contains more coherent musical structures than ANTIDAWN, but the sense of place is even more evocative. Looping tones of “Hospital Chapel” decay and are revived again, generating suspense each time they recede into near-silence before a quasi-choral section populates the song with a human presence in a holy place. The progression of Streetlands is one from the chapel’s quiet reflection to the science-fiction adventure of “Exokind”. “There is something out there…” Streetlands declares, not as a caution to stay inside, but as a motivation to venture out. – Thomas Britt
Danger Mouse / Black Thought
There was little question that a collaboration between Black Thought and Danger Mouse would be good; the question was how good it would be. We got the answer with Cheat Codes. Much has been lauded about the “old school” sound of Cheat Codes, but honestly, it simply sounds like a great Black Thought project with Danger Mouse as producer. Many of the themes Black Thought has extensively covered with The Roots and his solo work; systemic poverty, generational trauma, and faithful perseverance are readdressed in tracks like “Close to Famous”, “Identical Deaths”, and the title track.
Black Thought is consistently on the “most consistently underrated rappers” list in hip-hop, and Cheat Codes again showcases Thought’s versatility. Few artists could modify their flow and delivery to seamlessly fit in with powerhouse contributors like Raekwon, Joey Bada$$, and Run the Jewels, but Thought accomplishes just that throughout Cheat Codes’ tight, focused 40-minute run time, which also includes a posthumous highlight from MF Doom on the track “Belize”.
All of this is held together by Danger Mouse’s tight, uncluttered production. Throughout his career, he has shown his ability to be a maximalist as well as a frugal utilitarian. Cheat Codes is another highlight in his work as a producer, and hopefully, the album’s success will set us up for another collaboration between two artists who are still near the top of their respective games. – Sean McCarthy
Hercules and Love Affair
Andy Butler and Anohni reunite to make the dark and introspective In Amber. Assessing the difficult years since their last collaboration, In Amber is an overtly political album that tackles thorny subjects like homophobia and transphobia, war, and terrorism. Taking bruising and barbed lyrics, and setting them into throbbing, pulsing dance songs, Butler and Anohni perform the uneasy trick of making thoughtful, serious, and ominous dance synthpop. Instead of reassuring their audiences or offering their listeners succor, the duo chooses to make a record that reflects the unsettling times we live in, choosing to write songs that paint a picture that is unsettling, worrying, and disturbing.
Some reviewers noted the shift in style for Hercules and Love Affair whose past was dominated by disco-pop, In Amber is a dance record that looks to more somber, austere sounds. The best track on the record, “Grace” is an homage to 1980s synthpop. “One” is a strident allusion to disco-soul. Though a challenging and provocative album, In Amber is still listenable, with Butler proving his pop smarts, being able to reflect his (and Anohni’s) concerns and fears, yet still set them to stirring dance music. — Peter Piatkowski
Sharon Van Etten
We’ve been going about this all wrong
“Mistakes” on Sharon Van Etten‘s sixth album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, leaps out as possibly the poppiest, catchiest, most danceable track the US singer-songwriter has ever recorded, with all synthesizers blazing. It’s enough to make you wonder why she didn’t pre-release it as a single. But, as it turns out, Van Etten wanted to present a “whole body of work” here, showing a Kate Bush level of reverence for the album as an art form. We, therefore, get an astonishing clash of moods and styles on the unifying theme of love and parenthood in the time of Covid, making for a compelling autobiographical narrative that’s shot through with raw and often cathartic expression.
Van Etten performs a slow-building epic on the opener, “Darkness Fades”, her voice still the most powerful of instruments as she sings of separation and longing in the night. She does a sparse ballad on “Home to Me”, an intimate address to her son, and, boy, does she do dark and gnarly electro-rock on “Headspace”, with its neurotic chorus: “Baby don’t turn your back to me!” She’s not averse to marrying her soaring harmonies to a stately folk sound, either, as she does on “Come Back”, ahead of the ethereal dream pop of “Far Away”. As a result, it’s her most captivating run of songs yet. – Adam Mason