Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers
“I can’t please everybody,” Kendrick Lamar muses on “Crown”, and it’s a line equivalent to a baited fishhook. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers won’t be near as universally adored as his most revered works. It’s not just because of its mellowness or because its indulgence in contemporary rap trends sacrifices crossover appeal. Far from the pitch-perfect storytelling of good kid m.A.A.d city or the exquisite poetry of To Pimp a Butterfly, Mr. Morale feels intentionally haphazard, even provocative. The double album is lengthy and prickly, its immediate pleasures counterbalanced by its confusions and difficulties. At its crux is a discussion concerning the corrupted dynamic between the artist (Mr. Morale) and the audience (The Big Steppers) – a dynamic that, like love, is acceptance and rejection in tandem.
Kendrick Lamar is not perfect. He’s not a monster either. But the clear takeaway from Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is that he’s no longer entertaining the ridiculous idea that you might regard him – or Oprah, or Kobe, or Kanye, or even R. Kelly – in black and white terms. The record’s final track, and what might be his last one for a while, revolves around choice words: “I choose me, I’m sorry.” It’s directed to us: every fan, every enemy, every listener, every critic, every influencer, and person with their own idea of what Kendrick Lamar as a public person means to them. When the track closes abruptly, we’re left with an empty pedestal and the notion that if Lamar believes he’s good enough for himself, so should we feel for ourselves: each of us, like the album, is perfect in our imperfection. – Rob Moura
Rosalía’s MOTOMAMI ranges from flamenco to bachata, reggaeton/neoperreo, dembow, bolero, synthpop, hyperpop, samba, and experimental collages that form what is nowadays known as “avant-pop” — or “artpop”, as per the influence of Lady Gaga’s 2013 homonym album. There’s a common denominator in the list of genres heard in MOTOMAMI: most are of Latin American origin. They shine a light on questions that have arisen since Rosalía started to branch into reggaeton, with singles like “Con Altura” (2019): how does she, a white, European woman, fit into the Latinx music scene? Is speaking Spanish enough of a starting point for her dialogue with marginalized cultures from Latin American, European-colonized countries? It’s a complicated debate.
As the mastermind behind MOTOMAMI, Rosalía is conscious of her hyper-hybrid approach to arrangements and song structures. There’s even some humor in how she does it. We could say MOTOMAMI is her treatise on the music of the future if it wasn’t an abstract of the music of the present already. If you’re paying attention to today’s music and pop culture, it won’t be hard to acknowledge the innovation of MOTOMAMI while simultaneously feeling that it sounds familiar. – Ana Clara Ribeiro
(Zen FC / Island)
The sudden rise of Yard Act during the pandemic isn’t something I think anybody could have expected. In less than three years, a band of anti-capitalist, sonic experimentalists became major label darlings during a time when the live music industry was nonexistent. On their debut full-length The Overload, they’ve managed to craft a distinct sound that’s refreshing enough that any comparison sounds a little farfetched but also recalls most eras of post-punk’s history at one point or another.
Many of the current successful indie rock and post-punk bands are still harkening back to the genre’s period of mainstream success in the 2000s. Yard Act definitely occupy a similar place in the genre to Black Country, New Road, Mush, or Black Midi in keeping the “post” in post-punk going through rampant experimentalism. However, Yard Act have songs that are more accessible to a mainstream audience than much of that scene. — Ethan Stewart
Angels and Queens – Part 1
(Atlas Artists / Parlophone)
The gorgeous, supple, soulful vocals on Gabriels’ debut album Angels & Queens – Part 1 belong to Jacob Lusk, an American Idol alumnus who came in fifth on the reality television competition show. Instead of languishing in has-been, C-list purgatory, he’s a crucial element in one of the year’s best albums. Gabriels – Lusk along with musicians Ryan Hope and Ari Balouzian – released a brilliant album of gospel-hewn soul, old-school R&B, and electronic-laced jazz. Angels & Queens is brief – seven songs -but it packs a wallop, finding euphoric soul and divine inspiration. There are influences of Motown, Stax, as well as Northern Soul. Gabriel isn’t merely reviving soul music, but recasting it in their own image.
Just listen to the magnificent vocals on the album’s closer, “Mama” which begins with Lusk’s plaintive crooning which is elevated by the majestic, dramatic piano, and programmed beats, with the song meandering until it’s broken up with stunning wordless vocalizations of Lusk and an accompanying choir. It’s a regal, high point on the record that is elegant and powerful – a strong encapsulation of the trio’s sound: smart, beautiful, and innovative. – Peter Piatkowski
Yes, damn right that Dry Cleaning‘s second album, Stumpwork, features a song about a pet tortoise called Gary Ashby, who goes missing. It’s strangely moving, actually, with vocalist Florence Shaw plaintively cooing, “Have you seen Gary? Family tortoise”, out of concern that he might be stuck on his back “without me” and with “dogs running free”. This is while Tom Dowse’s breezy and poignant guitar lines wind in and out, to make it one of the most compelling talky post-punk songs since Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever’s “French Press”.
The South London indie quartet similarly defy rock cliché and mine absurdist situations over a further ten angular tracks on this humorous, well-observed, and tightly played album. Shaw speaks intimately and sardonically all over it, teasing out the meaning in the mundanity of London life, in musical contexts more widescreen than before. “Don’t Press Me” is a short, sharp attack of wonderfully spiky and tangled guitar licks, over which she gets possessive of her gaming mouse. The title track is a catchy, hypnotic groover that sees her walk the street, almost leap into song, and get niggly at drivers (“Why are you revving?”). “Liberty Log”, meanwhile, sees her descend into a claustrophobic, Sonic Youth-tinged world of watching TV in her room. A world that’s definitely worth visiting. – Adam Mason
Bournemouth producer Daniel Avery wastes no time throwing listeners off their balance with Ultra Truth. The opening track has a fuzziness that will make you swear your cables aren’t plugged in quite fully, but at the same time, it sounds oddly fitting. While mostly ambient, Ultra Truth contains enough elements of house, shoegaze, and Boards of Canada-like low-fi grooves to keep it a moving target in terms of genre.
The sparse, unhurried use of synth and percussion gives Avery’s latest album a mournful tone that oftentimes steers into euphoria. Clocking in at almost an hour, Ultra Truth feels like a journey where you can clearly trace its beginning as well as its rewarding conclusion. Avery’s sonic landscapes are steeped in oil-slick darkness, but there’s a warmth that permeates tracks like “Wall of Sleep” and especially “Spider.” Ultra Truth is a winter soundtrack for the coming months. – Sean McCarthy
Wet Leg – Wet Leg
Any doubt as to whether or not Wet Leg could sustain the momentum from the viral 2021 single “Chaise Longue” was cast aside when the Isle of White duo released their debut album in April 2022. Not since Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and Sleeper’s Louise Wener infiltrated the UK indie rock scene in the early-1990s have we seen a women-led British rock band captivate so many listeners. The formula is absolutely irresistible: languidly groovy, quasi-psychedelic 1990s-derived indie rock, with clever, laconic lyrics that range from eviscerating to emasculating, delivered in a withering sprechesung by Rhian Teasdale.
What sets Wet Leg apart from their post-punk forebears, however, is how charming Teasdale and Hester Chambers sound while skewering everything from toxic masculinity to social media, to late-teens melodrama. On standouts like “Wet Dream”, “I Don’t Wanna Go Out”, “Piece of Shit”, and the brilliant “Angelica” they stick the dagger in while smiling in their victims’ faces. If that wasn’t enough, a song like “Being in Love” bowls you over with its sweet vulnerability. The potential is there for something even better in the future, but Wet Leg have made an extraordinary statement on their first effort, a remarkable feat in its own right. – Adrien Begrand
Once Twice Melody
Each Friday, a new batch of releases comes in, vying for your attention. It’s hard enough to keep up with the weekly haul and even harder to allow certain releases to sink in. It’s especially difficult if one such release pushes the 90-minute mark. But like any other Beach House album, Victoria Legrand’s gorgeous vocals, and warm keyboard work, and Alex Scally’s sublime guitar keep you coming back.
Coming four years after one of their best albums, 7, you would be hard-pressed to find all of Once Twice Melody’s four distinct chapters on the first few listens. The relatively calm first half of Once Twice Melody opens up a second half that contains some of the band’s most immediate, catchy songs of their career (see the driving, trance-like “Only You Know”). Not surprisingly, a lot of stuff vied for our attention in 2022. Once Twice Melodymakes a great case for a patient ear. – Sean McCarthy
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
Big Thief have a lot to say, and they know how to go about saying it. Since 2016, they’ve released four and a half hours of music; singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker and her bandmates have released another four hours of solo music. Even so, the 80 minutes and 20 songs of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You represent a sizeable chunk of that prolific output. The mouthful of a title promises two things at once: a hodgepodge of irresistible songs (no, really: who could resist a dragon, or a warm mountain, or belief in you?) and a wager that somehow it will all come together in the way only a band creating at the velocity and the intensity of Big Thief could pull off. It’s the first long title since Captain Beefheart’s long-ago Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) that I’ve never been tempted to acronymize or to try to figure out what it means.
The two albums stand to each other in the same relationship as Beefheart’s and Lenker’s respective voices. While one is gravelly, angular, and dissonant and the other is warm, quavering, and familiar, both manage infinite variation from a limited palette and both manage to pull together everything going on around them into sonic worlds to get lost in. In this world, there’s a lot of country, except when there isn’t. A lot of folk, except when it squawks or churns or jams. A lot of pastoral—except when a song veers into simulation swarms and the like. And a lot of fun—except when it gets heartrendingly dark. Much of it sounds like it could have been recorded any time over the past 50-plus years, except that Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You sounds like nothing so much as the world we live in, now. – David Pike
Farm to Table
The obvious selling point of Bartees Strange’s work is the eclectic sound – his relentless blending of various hip-hop and indie rock idioms that is distinctly his. Like on Live Forever, some songs live closer to one sound than another (here, “Mulholland Dr.” is more indie rock, while “Cosigns” is more hip-hop). On Live Forever, these two sounds would often act as foils for one another, like on the electrifying “Boomer”. The strategy on Farm to Table is often subtler. “Black Gold”, a gem tucked into the back of the record, blends confessional nearly-spoken lyrics and a drum machine with a profoundly melodic falsetto chorus and fingerpicked acoustic guitar.
Top-to-bottom, Farm to Table is Bartees Strange doing the things he does best: everything. While it’s tempting to dive into this album waiting for the next “Boomer”, an artist as accomplished and subtle as Bartees Strange is best appreciated for what he offers, not for what we project onto him. Farm to Table is a record to dwell within, not one to merely be impressed by, making it a fitting and remarkable sophomore effort for an artist whose debut turned so many heads. — Jeremy Levine