The gorgeous, supple, soulful vocals on Gabriels’ debut album Angels & Queens 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
London-based Australian producer and singer HAAi, aka Teneil Throssell, released her debut LP, Baby, We’re Ascending, this year following a highly successful collaboration with the xx’s Romy and Fred Again… Given her DJing skills and history of filling dancefloors, the record is chock full of big-beat techno bangers, interspersed with melodic and occasionally dreamy electropop. HAAi’s pairing with Jon Hopkins on the title track steps away from the blast beats and features her enigmatic, hypnotic voice set to gentle, rolling synths that slowly raise the intensity as things progress.
“Biggest Mood Ever” leads off with Alexis Taylor’s (Hot Chip) voice while settling into lower-key rhythms and mellow waves. “Human Sounds” leans into dubstep blended with alternative hip-hop. Despite the wide range of styles on Baby, We’re Ascending, the album holds together as a compelling whole and sounds like a perfect DJ record where each track adds to the journey, and you feel like you’ve really been somewhere when the last note drops. — Sarah Zupko
When wondering how a young artist might break through and secure a key supporting role in the Netflix mega-hit Stranger Things or a record deal with Long Pond Studios, it’s best not to Google their parents’ IMDBs. Nevertheless, Maya Hawke proves a creative force all her own, especially with this year’s folksy LP MOSS, a record that feels as warm and inviting as a steaming cup of coffee on a sunny November morning.
With a gorgeous voice, equal parts glossy soprano, and tender rasp, Hawke makes pop music within the parameters of styles set by the likes of Carole King and Joan Armatrading. But her sincere lyricism and unflappable demeanor carry her music toward a status that feels definitively hers, a remarkable accomplishment so early into one’s multifaceted career. It might be easy to write Hawke off as a flagrant product of Hollywood nepotism, but her clear-eyed penchant for natant melodies and delectable guitar work outshines the naysayers. She may sum it up better than anyone else on “Sweet Tooth”: compared to her friends hating on art created in earnest, “Love is such a better thing to do.” — Michael Savio
Infinite Coles is an exciting artist who is music royalty, being the son of legendary rapper, Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan. But instead of following in his father’s footsteps into hip-hop, the singer chose to release an EP, Destiny, a collection of sultry R&B, electro-tinged dance, and shimmery indie-soul. A highly original – and fashionable – artist, Infinite Coles has a unique point of view, bringing in influences of 1990s R&B/soul, ballroom culture, and house, as well as, UK soul. Infinite Coles finds inspiration and encouragement in the Black queer community, particularly ballroom culture and voguing and it’s exciting to see what lies in store for a talented and exceptional artist like him. — Peter Piatkowski
Comprised of the duo Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye, two former students of the renowned Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Jockstrap, like their namesake, are hard-working, classic, and a bit sweaty. They’re also dazzlingly attuned to what makes for intricate, surprising indie pop music. On their debut LP, I Love You Jennifer B, they marry Ellery’s background in classical violin with Skye’s penchant for zippy electronic beats, creating a record that’s daring and inventive without ever feeling inaccessible.
“Glasgow” plays like a folksy road trip anthem, while “Debra” and “Concrete Over Water” crackle and soar, scrapbooking a flair for Symbolist orchestration a la Claude Debussy with the bass-in-your-sternum razor pop of early Sleigh Bells. It’s hard to imagine another record that could contain a seemingly arbitrary aside from an unknown tobacco-spitting cowboy (“Shifting about in her goddamn crochet pants staring at God knows what”) followed a few tracks later by “Grief is just love with nowhere to go”, a line of sneaking profundity. Get ready to hoist Jockstrap up to your hips, because they’re built to last. – Michael Savio
The solo debut from Pixy Jones, former guitarist for Welsh psych-pop outfit El Goodo, is what the title says, Bits n Bobs. The songs are a cornucopia of material that didn’t quite fit on early El Goodo releases, songs that might have been on their 2020 album Zombie if it had been expanded to its proposed double-LP length, and tunes written especially for it, yet it all comes together to showcase Jones’ range and prowess.
Jones appears on the cover, wearing a ridiculous rubber walrus mask. He had originally planned on releasing the album under the name of Wallace Russell but decided that there wasn’t much point in a nom de plume if nobody knew who he was, to begin with, so the mask remains as a relic from a time that never came. It works as an apt symbol for the kind of kitchen sink construction of the album, and the new beginning offered to Jones.
With no budget to speak of, Jones started recording the album on the side as he was making Zombie. AhGeeBe’s Rhodri Brooks added a little pedal steel, Sweet Baboo’s Stephen Black graced a track with woodwind and brass, and the rhythm section from El Goodo, drummer Elliott Jones and bassist Andrew Cann, can be heard on “Wind Street,” but other than that, Bits n Bobs was all Jones, and it’s impressive.
It took over two years to make, and to save enough money for studio time, he had to quit smoking, but it was worth the effort. Mostly recorded and mixed with Tim Lewis (Thighpaulsandra) at Aerial Studios, the pandemic allowed/forced him to take extra time to tinker around and tie up a few loose ends at home. His obsession with the late 1060s recording aesthetic is matched only by his evolving prowess with it. Every song is its own corner of the world.
“Confusion” evolves from Brian Wilson in the depths of despair in his bedroom with a guitar to evoke the surfy harmonies of the Beach Boys at their Pet Sounds peak. “Maureen Dreams No More” has the Pacific Northwest lo-fi snarl of the Sonics, while “I’m Coming Home” channels the cerebral alt-country of the Byrds. Even behind a mask, Pixy Jones sounds more himself on Bits n Bobs than at any point with El Goodo. — Alan Ranta
A Gen Z superstar-in-waiting, Bristol’s Willow Kayne is poised to take over the world. The 19-year-old’s Playground Antics EP is a staggeringly confident debut – five tracks that blur the lines between genres such as hip-hop, neo-soul, drum and bass, and even pop-punk. Kayne pulls off this ultra-contemporary hybrid style with style and panache, with “Opinion” and “This My Film” highlighting her impressively controlled rapping skills. A freshly-inked major label deal and backing by Dua Lipa‘s management team all but guarantees that Playground Antics is just the very beginning of Willow Kayne’s career. — Tom Morgan
Eight-piece combo Kokoroko have been on the radar of discerning fans and awards committees for years, but Could We Be More is only their first full-length release. It’s a satisfying blend of Afrobeat and jazz that gives credence to the group’s much-touted reputation. Interlocking rhythms and fluid horn parts led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey contribute to a full sound that revels in an intercontinental exchange between Lagos (also evident in the sunny guitar parts of tracks like “Ewà Inú” and “Dide O”) and Kokoroko’s home base of London. Heart-on-sleeve sentiments ring bold and true, with or without lyrics, on tracks like the exuberant “We Give Thanks” and determined “War Dance”.
On “Home” and “Something’s Going On”, Kokoroko pull together intimate, understated melodies that still make a significant impact. These are smooth, honest affirmations of the importance of expressive communities and the value of honoring the complexities of their individual and collective roots. Could We Be More is ultimately uplifting, a humble miracle of music made in a spirit of togetherness that is worth many listens. The name “Kokoroko” means “be strong”. On Could We Be More, the group does just that. — Adriane Pontecorvo
Sometimes you do get a second chance to make a first impression. Around 2005, Jack Sharp started recording eccentric psychedelic folk under the name of Wolf People from his home base in Bedfordshire, England. Yet, after touring with a couple of childhood friends, and adding a bassist, it eventually became a proper band. By the time they released their final 2016 album, aptly named Ruins, they’d shed most of the folk influences that added such depth to their earlier recordings in favor of a more blanketing Black Sabbath sludge.
Wolf People announced their creative pause in January of 2020, and the nascent pandemic left Sharp even more isolated. Rather than shut down, he tapped into a creative vein that inspired him to produce an entire album of fully-realized material in a couple of short weeks, all played by Sharp himself. He launched Large Plants with a seven-inch featuring an earnestly scuzzed-up cover of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” in late 2021, and let loose The Carrier the following year.
Where Wolf People made complete sense next to Black Mountain on Jagjaguwar, Large Plants’ debut album The Carrier found its home on Ghost Box, famous for ushering in the eccentric hauntology aesthetic. They haven’t released an album that rocked this psychedelically since the Soundcarriers dropped Entropicalia in 2014, something more Canterbury than John Carpenter, so it’s a great fit for both.
The Carrier maintains the cerebral weight of Black Sabbath while returning to an acoustic haunted campfire folk feel. The fuzz-drenched guitars sizzle and breakneck drumming snaps, balancing the mournful elegance oozed by his stonehenging singing of mystical lyrics stolen from the end of days. Sharp did subsequently enlist former Deerhoof guitarist Chris Cohen to mix The Carrier, and put together another band to play live on the road, so who knows how Large Plants will continue to grow in the future, but at least on that debut, it has such a beautifully singular vision. — Alan Ranta
When 22-year-old bedroom pop artist Maude Latour wasn’t spending her last few years pumping out carefully crafted bubblegum jams, she was studying for her philosophy final exams at Columbia University. It checks out: with a husky, percussive voice that sounds as if she could be a distant cousin to Lorde, the Swedish-born singer-songwriter grapples on her supremely fetching debut EPs with questions of impermanence and relationships formed and ended in the midst of the ongoing hullabaloo of material existence. That may sound pretentious, but her dynamic music is anything but.
This year, she managed to both snag her bachelor’s degree and drop a fine EP, 001. Add stints at festivals like Austin City Limits and a “Kids in America” cover on Netflix’s Do Revenge soundtrack, and you could say she had a more productive senior year than most college students I know at the very least. As she continues producing impressive works that combine the joyous thrill of MUNA with the cool temperament of Caroline Polachek, there’s little doubt that Latour will soon sprout into an artist who gives us all a lot to think about. — Michael Savio
Los Bitchos are a truly international act. The band members originally came from different parts of the world. Australia native Serra Petale (guitar), Uruguay’s Agustina Ruiz (keytar), Sweden’s Josefine Jonsson (bass), and South Londoner Nic Crawshaw (drums) met in London and began jamming together in the late 2010s. Then COVID hit. Los Bitchos released their first album in February 2022, Let the Festivities Begin!, whose title suggests its penchant for frivolity. They make instrumental music that blends eclectic sounds from the past and present including Argentinian cumbia, American surf rock, English punk, and Turkish Anatolian stuff. The music is fun with a serious edge to it, and there is always an insistent groove going on. Their live shows are legendary for their energy. As the group’s name implies, the act is not trying to be nice. Los Bitches demand attention because the band members know their value and dare you not to respond to the music. — Steve Horowitz