Black Country, New Road
Ants From Up There
Black Country, New Road‘s sound is bold and progressive, unconcerned with imitation or revivalism. The six-piece paint classical and jazz instrumentation on a deconstructed rock canvas, layering atop nuanced lyricism that conveys sharp narratives and achingly-sincere emotions.
It’s a heady combination, but one that makes a riveting antidote to their post-punk peers’ seemingly-endless obsession with aping genres that lived and died 40 years ago. It’s hard to overstate just how good Ants From Up There is. It’s not quite Black Country, New Road’s masterpiece, as the band is too young and raw for it to be that perfect. However, it’s tough to find much fault with it. The sprawling nature of the tracks, especially the final two, makes for staggeringly compelling listening.
The disregard for conventional structure and instrumentation, combined with the adroit, sincere lyrics, makes Ants From Up There one of the richest and most emotionally-honest albums released by a young British band for quite some time. In a world that seems content to reanimate the past perpetually, Black Country, New Road are daring to dream up something different. — Tom Morgan
In what is one of the year’s best dance records, Röyksopp – Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland – flex its creative muscles with Profound Mysteries, an innovative and genre-testing project that saw the duo create some fine dance music that was married to some arresting visuals with the accompanying musical clips. Berge and Brundtland maintain that their outfit had released its last ‘traditional’ LP in 2014, and instead saw Profound Mysteries as conceptual art. What Profound Mysteries does is begin to question the rules of pop music, especially in how we conceptualize pop records, important questions to ask as the music industry continues to change exponentially.
It would be easy for a record like Profound Mysteries to collapse under the lofty and heightened ambitions of the duo – but thankfully, the record is a brilliant, transcendent album that benefits from contributions from dance heroines like Pixx, Astrid S, Alison Goldfrapp, and Susanne Sundfør, as well as a slate of tunes that pay homage to 1980s New Romantic, synthpop and New Wave, and disco. — Peter Piatkowski
Hold the Girl
Rina Sawayama has described her journey in creating her second album as “reparenting” herself, a process of unlearning all the ways we tend to be taught how to fit in growing up. But once we reach a certain age, the last thing a queer person wants to do is blend in. It doesn’t have to be loud, but in the singer’s case, she likes broadcasting it that way. While her first LP introduced us to one of the most commanding new voices in 2020s pop, it left little to the imagination where practicality was concerned. Hold the Girl, however, is in fact a coming-of-age narrative branded in the form of an alt-pop album, which may have been the smartest move for steering clear of a sophomore slump.
Combining an affinity for the Y2K pop she grew up consuming with a refusal to water herself down for anybody, Sawayama also exposes the hypocrisies she faced growing up during her process of self-reclamation. On the surface, the record showed early signs of being the latest dance-pop thrill. Underneath, Hold the Girl is a raw and compelling depiction of a queer woman coming to terms with herself and the world around her. – Jeffrey Davies
The Last Goodbye
(Ninja Tune/Foreign Family Collective)
Nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album, The Last Goodbye is a strong return for ODESZA after several years of side projects. It’s a wide, expansive album that touches upon a variety of emotions and moods. Despite the diversity of the material, themes, and sounds, The Last Goodbye is a cohesive project. The best of the album engages with the album’s guest vocalists injecting melancholy and emotion.
The Last Goodbye‘s first single, the title track, is a prime example of the duo’s brilliance. Structuring the tune around a sample of the Bettye LaVette classic “Let Me Down Easy” ODESZA heighten the anguish and pain in LaVette’s performance by isolating the impassioned chorus and lacing studio effects and reverb, giving the vocals a gospel-like fervency. Recasting the soul legend as an indie-dance diva is a stroke of genius. From the fiery power of Bettye LaVette to the ethereal charms of the angelic Charlie Houston, “Wide Awake” is a driving club banger that speeds through at a breakneck pace (yet is miraculously emotional and poignant.) The true genius of The Last Goodbye is that it brings humanity and empathy, a warmness to a genre that can be chilly in its high-tech artifice. — Peter Piatkowski
The Power in Us
South London’s Poppy Ajudha creates thoroughly modern R&B with whipsmart lyrics and memorable melodies. So much so that it comes as a shock that The Power in Us is her debut album. Ajudha possesses sophistication that belies her young age, and she uses that to make a superbly edited record with a vast range of moods and grooves that makes the LP zip by in a snap. Fiercely feminist and socially conscious, Ajudha’s music is empowering for women and inspiring to all progressively oriented people.
“Play God” dissects how religions act to reinforce male dominance and female subjugation. It’s a hugely powerful track full of righteous anger and rage. Meanwhile, “Holiday From Reality” sports an infectious flowing pop sense but speaks to our weariness in these troublesome times. “Mother Sisters Girlfriends” is a paean to the sisterhood of women, while “Fall Together” urges women to unite to create change and draw from each other’s inherent strength. “London’s Burning” weaves electronic beats and a melancholy mood around Ajudha’s warm, unique voice.
With the striking down of Roe vs. Wade in the United States, Poppy Ajudha’s music couldn’t be more timely and necessary. She sees the power in all of us to create change and progress to a better future. – Sarah Zupko
“Meet me at midnight,” Taylor Swift croons on the opening track of her tenth studio album, Midnights. Luckily for her, an ample number of fans answered her bewitching call and made Midnights not only the biggest release of 2022 but also the highest-streamed and sold album on its release day in history. And for good reason. Midnights arrives as Swift’s long-awaited return to luscious synth-pop after her pandemic-motivated detour into indie folk, and it yields some of her most introspective and breathtaking work to date.
A concept album about the mysterious, sometimes self-sabotaging thoughts that pop into our heads at the hour when the city’s lights have all but dimmed, Midnights fulfills its promise of providing subdued finger snappers all while painting a picture of the complicated woman behind the stories. Melancholic nostalgia and addictive bliss run rampant, as do bitterness and hardwired thirsts for vengeance. “Anti-Hero” slyly builds to one of the catchiest hooks of the year, and the glittery “Bejeweled” and “Karma” wield refrains begging to be screamed in unison by the lucky few thousands that Ticketmaster’s apparently deemed worthy to attend Swift’s open-air stadium tour. Meanwhile, “Maroon” and “Midnight Rain” lament past what-ifs, and “You’re On Your Own, Kid” memorializes Swift’s troubled entry into superstardom with surprising restraint.
Aided by slick production primarily from the ubiquitous Bleachers frontman and “art bro” carper Jack Antonoff, Midnights doesn’t reinvent the wheel for Swift as much as it adorns it, adding to the impressively enduring catalog she’s cultivated over the course of the last decade and a half. Its success has been both awe-inspiring and inevitable, ticking off another distinctive era of a true commercial pop music mastermind with panache. It’s one that time won’t soon forget. – Michael Savio
Sampa the Great
As Above, So Below
On her new album, As Above, So Below, Sampa the Great continues to rise, proving her namesake greatness time after time even alongside a breathtaking roster of collaborators from across Africa and the diaspora. As Above, So Below frames Sampa within the contours of her journeys literal (born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, studied in California, primarily based in Australia) and figurative. She recognizes the movements and forces that have made her the star she is and those who have tried to stop her, and she acknowledges each one with grace and power across the album.
Every bit of what her moniker professes, Sampa the Great continues to be a crucial voice in the global hip-hop scene. On As Above, So Below, just as on The Return, she makes music with incredible clarity of purpose and affirms a sense of interconnected self and heritage that makes her writing, arranging, sampling, and guest list all the more compelling. Sampa is soaring, and she’s not afraid to let everyone know. – Adriane Pontecorvo
A Light for Attracting Attention
You could argue that the Smile‘s debut album, A Light For Attracting Attention, is just the sound of Radiohead with a jazzy drummer. It’s a side project that does, after all, feature Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, in collaboration with long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, and Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. But, in truth, the album feels a lot more significant – and refreshing – than that, especially in these protest-heavy times. It’s the sound of a band as urgent, intense, unpredictable, and profound as you could wish, with rockers, ballads, and scary electronic numbers that all benefit from a rhythmic kick and an occasional deep groove.
You can’t fault opener “The Same”, which creeps up on you with its eerie synth sound reminiscent of a John Carpenter horror, the perfect platform for a desperate-sounding Yorke to entreat: “People in the streets / Please, we all want the same.” The same goes for “You Will Never Work in Television Again”, a welcome blast of post-punk guitar energy that showcases a Thom Yorke who’s angrier and more energized than he’s been in a long time (and we do need this man’s foul-mouthed righteousness sometimes).
A similar sense of attack is present on “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”, with added synth skirmishes reminiscent of early OMD. But then there’s “Free in the Knowledge”: so anthemic, so simple, so acoustically driven, so…comforting. Yorke’s voice is here undiminished within Greenwood’s stunning orchestration, and it sounds like a distant cousin of “Fake Plastic Trees”. This outfit is full of surprises, indeed. – Adam Mason
Fear of the Dawn / Entering Heaven Alive
At the height of pandemic preventive measures, the option of touring became non-existent for working and aspiring musicians. Blues-rock savant Jack White utilized the disruption to take a ten-month pause from both playing and writing music and chose to pour himself into other creative pursuits. When he emerged from the self-selected musical hiatus, a writing burst produced April’s Fear of the Dawn followed by Entering Heaven Alive in July. On the surface, the two albums could not seem more different.
The former is an aural onslaught of unvarnished rock channeling hurricane-like intensity in a skittish meditation on clinical eosophobia, literally the fear of the dawn. The latter album reveals the musical multitudes White contains within himself. Jack White as garage-rock guitar god? Sure, but don’t fence him in. Entering Heaven Alive finds White an astute student of the great musical catalog; the contents give nods to Americana, bluegrass, ragtime, smooth jazz, and Beatle-esque psychedelia with a gunfighter ballad thrown in for good measure. The two albums, at first blush, couldn’t seem more disparate. And yet.
Both Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive contain a version of “Taking Me Back”. It serves as the opening track of the first album and the closing track (with the qualifier “gently”) on the second album. The surface dissymmetry of the two albums reveals a paradoxical symmetry with a difference as what was a declaration of sound and fury on the first album transforms into a playfully loose saloon band consideration of love. Perhaps the two albums are a musical yin and yang and a philosophical nod to the circularity of time. Maybe White’s just cleaning out the musical closet. Either way, he’s graced us with a striking case for his continued musical relevance. – Rick Quinn
Ever since 2013’s Beyoncé, our Queen Bey has been on a stunning creative streak, each album building on the excellence of the previous one. She ceased to be merely a pop star and has become a brilliant artist, crafting beautiful music that celebrated Black American culture and Black American pop music. With Renaissance, the singer pays homage to Black queer excellence, ballroom culture, and dance music. Her seventh solo studio LP is a thrilling dance party. She brings in elements of disco, dance-pop, soul, R&B, and house on Renaissance, creating an indelible gift to her army of queer fans. Wholly original and innovative, Beyoncé asserts herself as the rightful Queen of Pop.
The incredible lead single, “Break My Soul” is a swirling collage of neo-disco and early 1990s house-pop, an affectionate nostalgia trip that brilliantly samples queer staple, Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” and the propulsive “Explode” by Big Freedia. (Worth a listen is the Queens Remix featuring Madonna and sampling her classic “Vogue”, but with Beyoncé rightly centering Black women in the bridge’s rap.) Other songs on Renaissance are just as enthralling – the legendary Grace Jones graces (no pun intended) the funky “Move” while “Alien Superstar” (which takes cues from Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”) is a clattering nod to the neon-lit 1980s synthpop and glittery Minneapolis soul. Beyoncé takes her listeners to the roller disco with the ingratiatingly catchy “Cuff It”. More than just a dance record, Renaissance is a pop manifesto. — Peter Piatkowski