I really meant to get around to this sooner! Listening wise I’m already well into part 3, but I’ve been busy so I haven’t had a chance to update here. We’re hitting the real meat of Bowie’s career here, the topsy-turvy years of his glam phase-backslide-into-rock-and-drugs era. There’s some heaters in this collection, and some genuine blind spots in my listening history. Onto Aladdin Sane!
ALADDIN SANE (1973)
Ugh, this is a fantastic album but it’s impossible to look at without context. The point of this series is to watch how an artist transforms over time while also judging all of their albums individually, but there’s no way to listen to Sane as anything but a continuation of Stardust. And it’s a lesser one at that. This was Bowie’s first album as a megastar, written on tour, and it shows – the songs are punchier and slicker, but clearly recorded and mixed hastily and lacking in the substance that made Stardust such a classic.
There’s a deep irony here, in that the songs on Sane individually hit harder and more concisely than those on Stardust, and they come even closer to defining the glam rock sound. And yet, the whole doesn’t match the parts. This is a solid and fun rock album, but the first album in Bowie’s career that’s felt mandatory. Not directionless, not uninspired, but still mandatory. The songs are easy, empty and rushed. This is apparent immediately on the opener “Watch That Man” – a great, boisterous rock song, but one filled with repetitive, shallow lyrics. The album that follows is mostly that, punchy rock songs with tired lyrics and rushed production. It’s even more paradoxical – or possibly not – that the album’s best song is “Time,” a patient ballad with a committed vocal performance. It feels like a sign of the Bowie to come a few years later. The closer, “Lady Grinning Soul,” is an equally great, manic ballad that shows this album would’ve been better with more devotion and patience.
This album was inspired by both America and the Rolling Stones, with Bowie going so far as to include a cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” It feels like DEVO’s cover of “Satisfaction,” in that it takes a signature Stones song and dilutes everything that made it a classic to turn it into a different entity altogether. Unlike the DEVO cover, I wouldn’t go back and listen to the Bowie one again, but it is decent. Anyways, that Stones influence is palpable here, with a bunch of flashy, rough blues-rock songs. I was surprised looking at the track list to see that the album only produced one Bowie classic – “The Jean Genie” – but after listening I understand why. What should have been a landmark album instead feels like a placeholder. On it’s own, it’s a fine record, but it’s Bowie treading water and I don’t think it would’ve made him a star if he wasn’t already. A couple of these songs really do slap, though.
Favorite non-hit track: “Time”
This one will be quick – if Bowie didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it, why should I? Pinups is a contract-filling covers album, made up of mostly classic rock tracks that influenced Bowie. It’s not bad, really, just a mostly unnecessary listen.
What is curious though, is that this is one of the only albums where we actually get to see the Spiders of Mars in action! Bowie makes an effort to glam up some of these songs, including the great opening one-two punch of “Rosalyn” and “Here Comes the Night.” The songs are mostly older classic rock – Yardbirds, Who, Them, Kinks – which feels antithetical to the Stardust character. Bowie spends some songs ‘updating’ them for a glam era and some doing straight covers, which is very confounding. It can’t help but feel pointless. He tries to outweird Pink Floyd on their “See Emily Play” – and fails. He slows down The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” to make it his own and, well, it’s a lot worse. The beauty of that song is the rocking energy within the crisp, clean instruments and production, not the lyrics or anything.
I actually think I like the tracks where Bowie plays it safe more, although those are even more pointless. His cover of “Sorrow” is genuinely great. He tries another Who track in “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and plays it so close he actually sounds like Roger Daltrey. And, as much as this album is nothing more than contract fulfillment recorded on the road, it is still important in context to the Spiders of Mars and end of the glam era. It’s an era associated with Bowie – yet one he was not active in for very long and with limited successes.
Favorite non-hit track: Uh, N/A?
DIAMOND DOGS (1974)
This record is a mess, but not without some real highlights. It’s clear at this point that Bowie isn’t the solidified superstar I was under the impression he was in 1974; this album has too many directions and characters, loose half-inspired threads and competing influences. It’s very good, but it’s a couple different albums at once. I think it works best when it tries to work within glam but shed the Ziggy Stardust elements. The Spiders From Mars were gone, and the fact that Ziggy makes appearances here just feels somewhat stale. It feels like a step forward, a step laterally and a step back all at once.
The general conceit for this album, an apocalyptic one, works well. It’s a darker direction for the generally poppy sound of Bowie. The fact that he wanted to center it around 1984 but couldn’t get full permission from the Orwell estate is unfortunate and unintentionally funny, especially as the back-to-back tracks “1984” and “Big Brother” come off more like a weird obsession than an album concept. But, the theme really does set groundwork for glam and punk; it’s easy to forget how instrumental Bowie was in the latter. The album is at its best when Bowie is loose and loud. The title track is a fun, bombastic mess. “Sweet Things” rocks, and the song’s reprise leading right into “Rebel, Rebel” is an equally rambunctious sound. Meanwhile, more conventional tunes like “Rock N Roll With Me” are just disappointing. They sound plastic and empty, years behind the time.
This is ultimately a crucial record in the Bowie catalog, as it sees him move away from the glam sound, just as he was really perfecting the lyrical aesthetics. The album’s raw and rowdy elements really are fantastic, and directly inspirational to a forthcoming generation of loud bands. It’s the end of Ziggy Stardust and the end of this period of Bowie’s career. If this one had just been more cohesive than it would be an all-timer. But, it’s a still great listen and one that stamped Bowie as a legend.
Favorite non-hit track: “Diamond Dogs”
YOUNG AMERICANS (1975)
I’ll never understand when artists don’t put effort into an album cover. The covers of these 70’s Bowie records could not be more indicative of the music underneath. Diamond Dogs has the classic, loud painting of a half-dog-half-Bowie creature. Young Americans? Just a simple photo of Bowie smoking. With the glam era and the Ziggy Stardusted off his shoulders, Bowie is free to embrace an American soul sound. It’s a direction that’s been hinted at already, with some incongruous tracks on other albums that may have worked better here. It’s a pleasant, if forgettable listen.
This is clearly an album that Bowie wanted to make. With the power of hindsight, it’s a wild move to shed yourself of the zeitgeist-founding, sultry and disorderly persona in favor of porno music. But, Bowie has always had soul elements, and he’s finally devoting full time to their exploration. Young Americans is ultimately the most digestible Bowie record yet.
Most of these tracks are pretty similar and not wholly different than other soul songs. “Right,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “Can Your Hear Me” are the most effective ones, especially due to the inclusion of backing vocalists. Bowie’s voice maybe isn’t the best on this record, and strong arguments can be made that everything sounds thin. It’s not a classic soul record, and if you removed Bowie’s obvious personal desire to record it, it’d probably a failure for the genre. There is also the bizarre inclusion to include a cover of “Across the Universe” – with Lennon! It’s not a good cover, it’s straight up bad, it doesn’t fit on the record, and it follows in the heels of a full covers album. The album’s fascination with the Beatles – Lennon also co-wrote “Fame” and there’s the shoutout on the title track – feels divorced from the American soul influences. It’s yet another Bowie record where competing influences cannot interact peacefully. But, that was not nearly enough to detract me from pleasantly enjoying this one.
Favorite non-hit track: “Right”
STATION TO STATION (1976)
This I know for a fact was not a first-time listen; my dad had this one on CD growing up and I used to stare dumbfounded at what a ten-minute song could be. This is the result of Bowie in the throes of a cocaine addiction, one so bad that he’d later admit he has no recollection of even recording this album. That’s especially remarkable given how strong it and patient it is.
Americans gave Bowie some freedom to do what he wanted on his next album, and the result is a collection of fewer, longer tracks that incorporate a mix of everything Bowie had done up to that point. It’s a pretty genius album, and easily his most layered and textured so far. Gone are the direct lyrics in favor of dense poetry, gone are the simple guitar or synth rhythms in favor of complex, multi-instrument tracks with healthier runtimes.
The A side is certainly better – all three tracks shine. The title track is one of the most ambitious songs in the Bowie catalog (matched only by “Blackstar” 40 years later), with a 10+ minute runtime and patient, complex rhythms. “Golden Years” was the hit, and for good reason – it’s the catchiest track on the release. “Word On A Wing” is also a pure standout. Side B is less memorable, though it does include the infamous “TVC15,” with Bowie at his most nonsensical.
It’s fantastic, just a brilliant album even if it’s not the easiest one to listen to. Up next: The Berlin trilogy and the pop downfall!
Favorite non-hit track: “Word On A Wing”
Thanks for reading! I hope at least one person has as much fun reading these as I do writing them. Feel free to check out the first installment in the Bowie series!
So between this and my recent Oozing Wound review, I think it’s clear that I’m hijacking my own blog to just hype up great new releases by underrated bands I love. Death Valley Girls are cool as hell, and their fifth album feels like an important step forward in their career.
DVG have never truly felt like a “punk” band solely because they sound like ones that would reject the label themselves, but they stray closer to punk than anything else. Their previous albums were a genre blend of punk, pop, alternative and hints of soul, all buried under intentionally lo-fi production. The production allows the band to have a distinct sound – hypnotic and wavey, even as they’re playing music that doesn’t sound like that. “Islands” is categorically a DVG album, because that unique production quality is still in tow. But it also feels closer to an indie album – more patient and mature than the previous, energetic releases. The opener “California Mountain Shake” is a haunting, minimalistic tune that immediately sets a tone, separating this album from the rest of the pack. The title track and the following “Sunday” make up my two favorite songs on the album, and they both present a slower and more balanced side without sacrificing any of the energy. They are both extremely melodic tunes, but ones that make a push for an indie breakthrough.
After two listens, I won’t say this is my favorite DVG album. They are certainly pushing themselves in a new direction and I think they lost a little of their genre-blending – too many songs on the album’s back half bleed together. The album needs a banger or two to balance it out. I don’t feel familiar with most of the tracks on the back half, which is not great after two listens. Still, they are all excellent tracks! It’s a very pleasant listen front to back.
I always applaud and encourage bands to step out of their comfort zone, and that’s exactly what DVG did on “Islands.” It feels like a definitively indie album, and a damn good one at that. The lo-fi production makes the music sound fun, but there’s a ton of talent hidden under there too. I’m hoping that this is the album that gets the name Death Valley Girls into the conversation, because they’ve been pumping out great stuff for a few years now. It’s a logical progression and a nice complement to their earlier albums, expanding their general output and setting them up as a multifaceted powerhouse. Please: pay attention to this group!
If you like this, try: A very similar band that I also love dearly, The Coathangers. Their most recent album, 2019’s “The Devil You Know,” has the most explicitly anti-NRA song I’ve ever heard.
This is the second installment in this series, where I burn through an artist’s catalog in a quick manner. I’m doing these for three reasons – to get better at listening through catalogs in a quick way, to fill in some big gaps in my music knowledge, and to justify my continued payment towards this blog! I’m going to save time on any kind of artist intro and just tell you that for round 2, I’m listening to David Bowie. I’m a huge Bowie fan – always have been – but there’s plenty of his albums I’ve actually never listened to in full. For this exercise, I’ll be listening to all of his studio albums up to his original retirement. Some of them I’ve heard, but not in a long time, and listening to them will help contextualize his whole career. I will be stopping before The Next Day and Blackstar because I know those albums well enough as it is.
DAVID BOWIE (1967)
I knew his first couple albums were middling misfires so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting this. This debut album is pretty fun, but it’s a real head-scratcher as well. It’s an innocent collection of baroque pop songs that feel like they were supposed to be jokes with no punchlines. Nicely, they sound a lot like some of the wild Syd Barrett contributions to early Pink Floyd, with straightforward vocals and nonsensical, surreal lyrics. These songs aren’t as memorable as Barrett’s, but they are pretty fun.
It’s not fair to compare this album to the ones that came later – any song on this release is an absolute turd compared to “Heroes” – but it is difficult to not make the comparison. And this definitely lowers this album to a state of forgettable novelty tracks. Still, it’s an intriguing listen. It almost sounds like outsider music at times, which is something Bowie never really wandered into after this. It’s a confounding listen that is a fun gem to listen to once, but probably not worth a revisit.
Favorite track: “Love Me Til Tuesday”
DAVID BOWIE/SPACE ODDITY (1969)
There was something off about the debut album that I didn’t quite work out, until I put this record on: he lacked confidence! I think that’s a second reason why the self-titled debut is the biggest outlier in his catalog. It’s apparent pretty immediately on this record that he’s gained the studio confidence he would obviously maintain for decades. That said, this is an album lost in time. I saw one review while I was listening that said something to the effect of, half of this album belonged in ’67 and half of it in ’72, and I agree. We get some fun, novelty type songs – including “Space Oddity” – that feel like an extension of his debut, and some softer folksy rock tunes that sound very indicative of the decade to come, though not something Bowie would really touch again. There’s plenty of fine tracks, but it doesn’t really gel well.
Alongside the increased confidence comes a patience – these songs are longer than the ones on the debut album, significantly. The closer “Memory of a Free Festival” hits the 7-minute mark, a repetitive and middling but catchy tune akin to “Hey Jude.” “Cygnet Committee” is seconds short of 10 minutes, actually one of Bowie’s longest tracks, though it isn’t really efficient with that time. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is nearly 7 minutes and, bewilderingly, kind of a Southern rock tune which, even more bewilderingly, is great. There is more depth to the lyrics here too. “Space Oddity” sounds like a novelty track, much like the ones on his debut, but it doesn’t take a wordsmith to work out the song’s drug addiction allegory. “God Knows I’m Good” is also a tongue-in-cheek tune that wouldn’t have existed on the saccharine debut.
On the whole, I’m glad I listened to this record. There’s some tunes that don’t fit anywhere else in his catalog in a way that feels like retroactive experimentation. It’s not a great record, but it’s got a couple real standouts.
Favorite non-hit track: “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1970)
I think this one is going to be short. This album feels simultaneously important and insignificant, an important step and a bore. This is the first album that feels properly Bowie, and the first that feels super cohesive – two statements that aren’t necessarily intertwined but certainly do make sense together. This one adopts more of a rock approach than the scattershot, novelty folksy-baroque self-titleds. You can hear plenty of glam glimpses here. I wouldn’t call it “hard rock” like the reviews all seem to, but it does have a loose roughness to it that contemporaries like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had as well. It’s a tight collection, bolstered by the stunning opener “The Width of a Circle” and the classic penultimate title track. It’s a massive step-forward for an artist finally finding his identity. Well, his first one.
It’s also kind of…boring, really. It sounds pretty interchangeable with a lot of classic rock, with tracks like “Black Country Rock” and “Running Gun Blues” falling out of my memory immediately; I’ve only just finished the album and I’ve forgotten half the songs already. “After All” has a unique theatrical vocal rhythm that really didn’t work for me. Mid-album track “Saviour Machine” is a standout. It’s really just another rock song but it’s one that I really dug. Otherwise, I’m struggling to really find much to say here. From a standalone perspective, this is a standard rock album with a few stellar cuts and some filler.
Favorite track: “The Width Of A Circle”
HUNKY DORY (1971)
Finally…a Bowie masterpiece. This is one of the big albums that I’m pretty certain I’d never actually listened to in full. I was surprised at how sparse it is, given that the three biggest tracks – “Changes,” “Life On Mars?” and “Queen Bitch” – don’t follow the trend. But “Dory” really is a sparse, piano-driven album. Songs like “Kooks” show a playful side to a softer Bowie, where “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Eight Line Poem” are more somber affairs. All in all, this is a super cohesive album – only the rollicking “Queen Bitch” feels truly out of place.
This album is also a logical advancement from Man Who Sold the World, even if it doesn’t particularly sound like that record. Bowie is still, four albums in, finding his footing, managing to both diversify and solidify his sound. It acts as an accompaniment to “World,” as it is a much softer and melodic album, but is also miles better in quality. All of the songs on this record are near perfect, although the hits are very much the best tracks. This is the finest collection so far by far. It really is a remarkable leap from novelty singer/passable rock singer to ethereal artist. These songs all have tremendous depth and emotion and half of them do it with very few components. Bowie’s voice has yet to sound this good, he’s truly at all cylinders. Damn near perfect album.
Favorite non-hit track: “Fill Your Heart”
THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1972)
I have absolutely listened to this album before but it’s been embarrassingly long since I’ve done a full run-through. Just remarkable, so much more of a masterpiece than even Hunky Dory, this one is just on another level. I have claimed for a while that “Starman” is Bowie’s best vocal performance and it sounds even better on the context of the record. The album is loose, piano- and guitar-driven bluesy rock, a sound perfected on the title track. Incredible concept record where every single second of tape is used well.
I won’t spend a lot of time here, there’s little point in pointed praise of one of the most famous records ever, but a little gushing is necessary. The album produced four iconic Bowie songs, but the album tracks are just as good. “Five Years” and “It Ain’t Easy” are every bit as good as “Moonage Daydream” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Like some previous Bowie albums, one of the hits feels out of place – “Suffragette City,” tacked on as the penultimate song and louder than any other track. But it also makes for a great, late-album banger. Hunky Dory was a classic, but it is still a stepping stone to the actual, fully realized Bowie. This is that Bowie. From a novelty singer to a generational artist, it’s quite a journey. It also feels like the perfect place to wrap up part 1.
Favorite non-hit track: “Five Years”
Check out my previous and first installment in this series: Zola Jesus
I am aware that it is now 2023 and that talking about 2022 is illegal, but I love talking about films I’ve watched and I wanted to wait until the year was properly over to do this list (do not report me to the police). I’m not going to do a proper “Best Films of 2022” list because, frankly, I didn’t see that many. I loved a couple, didn’t care for some, and have still yet to see 90% of the ones I wanted to. Rather than that, I’ll just tell you that The Banshees of Inisherin is my favorite 2022 flick, so far. (This also helps me whittle down this list!) So, instead, here’s a list of my favorite first-time watches, and a few deep cuts I really enjoyed too! For the sake of keeping this interesting, I won’t write about movies twice, though there’s a few that could grace both lists.
Fifteen lesser-known films I cannot recommend highly enough:
BLUE COLLAR (1978) – Paul Schrader’s follow-up script to Taxi Driver (and directorial debut!) finds the complementary cast of Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto as union members at an auto body shop in Detroit trying to overthrow their evil boss. Engaging but brutally real and cynical drama shows you flat out how The Man will always keep you down, even when you think you’re winning. As real in 2022 today as it was then. Also features one of the most shocking and heartbreaking deaths I’ve seen in a while.
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962) – Utterly tense and heart-pounding drama sees Jack Lemmon – in a breakout role as a dramatic actor – fall into the throes of alcoholism. He challenges a pretty, teetotaling coworker to a drink and soon enough, they’re married, miserable and drunk. The movie uses imperceptible time jumps to make everything shady and unclear, mimicking the lives of the characters. Powerful and deeply upsetting film, almost definitely the best one on this list.
DREAM DEMON (1988) – Dreamy, psychedelic horror flick sees an average woman about to marry a rich man in a highly-publicized engagement. But she’s plagued by nightmares, and develops a bizarre friendship with an American tourist. When her nightmares cause a paparazzi to disappear in real life, it gets weird. Movie is extremely dependent on dream sequences, which can be off-putting for some, but I loved it. The ambitious opening sees a dream sequence where her wedding turns into a decapitation. It’s wild, bold and very gory while also being borderline nonsensical.
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1958) – A French new wave/noir about a cheating wife and her plot for her boyfriend to kill her husband, who is also his boss. What starts smoothly goes awry when the man realizes he’s left something incriminating behind, and gets stuck in a broken elevator, which also allows some rowdy teens to steal his car. As a confused and worried wife wanders the streets, the teens go on a crime spree of their own. Extremely fun to watch what’s essentially two films smashed into one.
THE EMPTY MAN(2020) – This indie horror movie went unnoticed but had its heyday this year when horror fans set it ablaze. A group of hikers get lost in Nepal as one gets drawn to a long-dormant supernatural being. Years later, teens in a flyover state awaken the same beast – this time intentionally – and start disappearing one by one. It’s up to an incredulous investigator to put things together before The Empty Man gets him too; or, will it? Conventional horror flick gives way to some over-the-top psychedelic, psychological stuff in the final act. Absolutely tremendous.
FAMILY PLOT (1976) – It sure feels weird to include a Hitchcock movie here, but people have just missed this one. Those that haven’t, have wrongfully misaligned Alfred’s final flick as being phoned-in, when really it’s just a much smaller scale. Gone are the international incidents, in favor of a grifter psychic and her husband (Bruce Dern!) tracking down a long-lost nephew – who is in turn plotting a robbery and does not trust the folks on his trail. More comical than anything, it’s wonderful to see Hitch transpose his talents to a smaller story.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) – An early Billy Wilder film sees the sole survivor of a German attack on a British battalion hunker down in an Egyptian hotel, posing as the recently-deceased waiter. Rommel and his men set up camp there as the British soldier finds out that – you guessed it – the waiter he’s assumed the identity of was also a spy. Taut and exciting thriller keeps upping the ante while remaining extremely fun.
HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) – A follow-up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? sees Bette Davis as an elderly woman refusing to give up her mansion to the town and losing her grip on sanity, decades after the murder of her husband (Bruce Dern!). Whether she committed the murder remains a mystery, as does the true intentions of Charlotte’s niece, who gets called in to help save the mansion. Really thrilling and tense stuff, and an all-time performance from Davis.
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) – Love a movie that tells you what it’s about right away. A WWII vet comes home a hero, only to find himself unemployed and accused of a robbery he did not commit. He ends up on a chain gang, breaks free, and climbs up the ranks of a construction company – until the law catches up and arrests him again. A tough and brutal look at the way the country values justice and veterans, and it ends on an action sequence that holds up as shocking and thrilling even 90 years later.
IN THE SOUP (1992) – The first of two films on this list that stars Steve Buscemi as a filmmaker! In this one, he’s got an unfilmable 500 page script that he wants to…film. He struggles to find a producer, until a very suspicious gangster promises to fund it, and keeps putting it off while Buscemi does odd jobs for him and keeps him company. Funny and original, the script is solid but Seymour Cassel as the gangster really elevates it into a cult classic. An absolute delight with just a pinch of terror.
LE BEAU SERGE (1958) – French film sees François return to his hometown after many years away. His best friend from childhood, Serge, has wasted away. He’s a bad-temepered, poor alcoholic in an unhappy marriage with a kid on the way. François becomes worried that Serge can’t fend for the kid and doesn’t want it and starts to interfere. This drama has some slow points, but the final stretch is impeccable and the final shot is burned into my brain.
LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995) – Very funny, very tense no-budget indie comedy sees director Steve Buscemi have his passion project crumble before his eyes. The film is split into three extended scenes, each one of which sees Buscemi filming a scene which inevitably goes awry. An all-star cast bolster this movie that is simultaneously whiplash-inducing and utterly pointless. It works as a satire of the film industry, but one accessible to anyone on the outside. This one should be held in much higher regard.
ROADGAMES (1981) – Australian thriller sees Stacy Keach as an isolated, sarcastic trucker who finds himself on the run from a serial killer, and the police, as the serial killer has managed to pin his crimes on Keach. Add in a mysterious hitchhiker in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis and you’ve got a volatile but extremely fun little yarn.
THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974) – This totally missed Western romp sees a black couple going on a well-planned crime spree across the West in 1911, aided by the newfangled invention of the automobile. It’s original, amusing and dramatic, embroidering the “moral criminal” Robin Hood mentality very well. It’s tense, but stays very charming and enthusiastic too.
WATERMELON MAN (1970) – A wild, confrontational and funny satire sees a very charismatic but deeply racist white man wake up one day to find he’s turned black. After a few days of constant bathing, the new reality sets in, as his family and friends (also racist) begin to scorn him. The downward spiral he falls is both comic from a karma perspective and palpably real, which makes for a very uncomfortable watch. Maybe a little dated in its own right, but still all too real.
Just for fun, because I am too self-indulgent, here’s three more:
3 Bad Men (Western/silent, 1926); Suture (Thriller, 1993); Wolfen (Horror, 1981)
And now, for the main event:
My 20 favorite first-time watches of 2022 that I didn’t already mention above:
20) YOJIMBO (1961) – One of many classic films that grace this list – a reason why I included so many “under the radar” ones above; if you’re reading this, you probably already know to watch Yojimbo. The Kurosawa classic follows a wandering ronin who finds two competing crime bosses puppeteering a small town, and uses himself to leverage the sides back and forth to avoid an all-out war. It’s a brilliant screenplay and one of the finest performances from Toshiro Mifune.
19) BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) – This tightly contained little bruiser walks the line between Western and noir in a truly unique way, as it follows Spencer Tracy’s normal-man character searching for somebody in a very small town, only to be met with confusion and hostility from the locals. Did I mention, it’s a very small town. Things escalate quickly and Tracy finds himself in trouble, looking for information and trying to survive until the train comes through the next day. It’s basically a bottle episode of a film, but look at the cast – ten total characters, five Academy Award winners.
18) THE 400 BLOWS (1959) – Another “I don’t need to write about this one” entry, as I finally laid eyes on one of the most revered films ever. Truffaut’s earnest and brutally uncomfortable tale of a troubled schoolchild falling further and further into trouble and hopelessness ends on one of the most iconic – and potentially hopeful – shots in film history.
17) WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY (2021) – With all the hype around Drive My Car, people seem to have completely missed Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s other 2021 film. The film is an anthology, with three unrelated stories of direct person-to-person confrontations. The first two involve a love triangle and a college professor who gets caught cheating with one of his students, but the real standout is the third film. Two women convince themselves they were classmates together and spend a day catching up, only to realize they’re total strangers. Rather than part ways, they use each other as stand-ins to confess long-buried secrets. Readers, my eyes did not stay dry.
16) Z (1969) – The first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture is an Algerian release about a real-life government-orchestrated assassination of a leftist politician in Greece and the proceeding fallout. It’s bleak and brutal, and successfully presents itself as both a timeline of a real event and a plausible scenario for any country with political struggles (which is, all of them). Watching this in America in 2022 was…well, uncomfortable.
15) THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1980) – What a delight, I threw this on as background noise but got fully engrossed. Bob Hoskins stars as a midlevel crime boss trying to make a major play by bringing in an American investor, just as someone starts offing his men one-by-one. A taut and thoroughly nerve-wracking thriller takes place over a Good Friday and has Hoskins at his very best. Stunning directing, too. This one was an obvious influence on Uncut Gems.
14) BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN (2021) – I could barely make heads or tails of this one and yet I loved it. The Romanian comedy follows a school teacher whose sex tape gets leaked, and she’s subjected to scorn and debate over whether she can remain in her position. It’s a satire on cancel culture and the way people weigh the actions of others subjectively. The first act is funny and tense, but the final act is an absolute riot – with one of the single wildest and most unpredictable endings I’ve ever seen. Curiously, the middle act is an unrelated, avant-garde production about Romania, good and bad, made for ignorant viewers like myself. The film opens with a full-on sex tape, but I unintentionally watched the edited Hulu version, which was very funny. Also gets points for having the best depiction of COVID on film yet (watch the questionable usage of masks).
13) HEAT (1995) – Again, what do I need to say here? It’s Pacino, de Niro, Kilmer and Mann. A damn-near perfect crime thriller that’s almost 3 hours but doesn’t feel longer than 1. Heart-pounding, fun and complete. The second-best scene is a chaotic shootout right in the middle of downtown LA, the best scene is entirely dialogue inside of a diner. A well-rounded picture.
12) CAPE FEAR (1962) – Sorry to those of you expecting a double dose of de Niro, but this is the original Gregory Peck & Robert Mitchum flick. This is one of the most heart-pounding movies I’ve ever seen, really. Peck stars as lawyer who gets Mitchum put away, only to have to flee years later when Mitchum is released and seeks revenge. Both the screenplay and Mitchum are so, so good that in the climax, you genuinely believe that a child is going to come to harm in a B&W film.
11) THE HAND OF GOD (2021) – I am a little incredulous of autobiographical films since they can often get self-indulgent, but this Italian drama smartly places weight on vibes instead of narrative. This technically-fictional coming-of-age tale sees the good and bad of growing up in the Italian country, from wanting to becoming a filmmaker to bored days watching Maradona to tragic accidents that upend entire lives. The scenery is gorgeous, the characters and dialogue all interesting and the vibes are totally engaging. I could live inside this movie, even the upsetting parts.
10) ROPE (1948) – My new favorite Hitchcock flick centers around the tensest dinner party in history. A sociopathic student and his reluctant lover friend kidnap and kill one of their friends, hide his body in a trunk, and invite all of their colleagues and the boy’s family over to a party. Why? Just to see if they get caught. Jimmy Stewart, as their nihilistic professor, is the only one to catch on that something very, very wrong has happened. The film is edited so it looks like long takes, and the whole thing takes place in one apartment. It all amounts to an incredibly tense and uncomfortable film that far outlasts its 80 minute runtime.
9) A MAN ESCAPED (1958) – Speaking of small-scale tension, this prison break drama might be the most heart-pounding film I’ve ever seen. With almost no backstory, we see a French resistance member held captive by Nazis and his multiple attempts to escape. As his friends jump the gun to run away and get executed, he works meticulously to break his door and plan his escape. The last act of this film is done in almost pure silence, with the man and an accomplice moving slowly and carefully through the jail undetected. It is so quiet that you can hear your own heavy breathing because it is, truly, nail-biting. One of the all-time best.
8) THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957) – This Russian WWII drama sees a young woman’s lover whisked off to war without a chance to say goodbye. As the years go on, the communications cease and she can only assume the worst. Eventually, she moves in with the man’s somewhat intolerable brother. While the story is effective and conventional, this film’s beauty lies in the directing. Eye-popping cinematography and painstakingly perfected long shots elevate this from a decent war film to one of the all-time greatest pieces of art.
7) BEFORE SUNSET (2004) – For a guy who always talks about loving long films, this is my second entry that doesn’t hit 90 minutes. There’s nothing to be said about this one that hasn’t been said – the perfect sequel to the somehow even better Before Sunrise sees two people meeting by chance, nine years after their first chance encounter. While the first film centers on their characters, this one shows how they’ve advanced. It takes place nearly in real-time, with the two wandering around Paris reconnecting before Ethan Hawke has to catch a flight. Pockets of combativeness arise where they didn’t before, and ego steps in the way; and yet, this movie is 80 minutes of completely wholesome, heartwarming love. I still need to see the third!
6) THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (2021) – This Norwegian romcom touches on just about every emotion and every genre. At times funny, other times dramatic, and occasionally surreal, this wonderful picture follows a woman in her late 20’s as she tries to navigate life and imperfect romantic relationships. Horrible elevator pitch, but it is written with a perfect, intricate hand. There is a genuine love for these characters, even as they make wretched mistakes, and it’s that love that makes this relatable for just about anyone who cares to invest. A beautiful and moving picture.
5) ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) – One of the most famous and revered films ever, and for good reason. Brando utterly commands every scene, even when he renders a lot of his own dialogue unintelligible. The story about longshoremen union members involved in a fight is an all-time story from Budd Schulberg, written with genuine urgency and malice. Elia Kazan’s directing just adds even more.
4) THE ASCENT (1977) – Another Russian WWII drama, this one is far, far more brutal than Cranes. As a Russian troop of soldiers struggles through a harsh winter in Belarus, two men break off to beg for food from townspeople. But, they’re captured by Nazis, and held separately in a concentration camp. Eventually, both men are given an ultimatum – join or die. I won’t go further for risk of spoilers, but the last quarter of this movie is intensely heartbreaking.
3) THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) – I know! I’d never actually seen it in full! I went in with the highest expectations and it still surpassed them. I can’t watch other Daniel Day-Lewis films now knowing how perfect he is here. The “I’ve abandoned my child” scene is just simply some of the finest acting ever put to film. This one is damn near perfect, but chances are you already know that.
2) DRIVE MY CAR (2021) – No recency bias here; the best film of 2021 is just one of the best of the century so far. A grief-stricken director struggles with the death of his unfaithful wife and reluctantly takes a role producing a stage production of Uncle Vanya. One of the primary actors he ends up casting – the man his wife cheated on him with. While Hamaguchi comes up with a punchy plot, the film revolves more around communications, with multilingual actors in Vanya serving as a metaphor for the man’s own introverted tendencies. He bonds with the actor and, more so, his personal chauffeur, herself a shy and withdrawn person. It is simply remarkable start to finish, with a justified runtime and arguably the best title card drop in history.
1) A SEPARATION (2011) – It’s been a long time since a film knocked me on the floor like this. The Oscar winner for Foreign Feature in 2011, this Iranian drama sees every taboo element you can think of. A fighting couple fails to secure a divorce, which sees a wife and teen daughter leave Tehran for the countryside while a husband (Nader) stays home to take care of his incontinent father. Nader hires a destitute, religious woman to care for his father during the day – but when Nader comes home, he finds his father tied to the bedpost and the woman gone. She returns, a fight ensues, and she ends up falling down the stairs. Was she pushed? The viewer does not know. But the woman’s husband, a man unemployable due to rage issues, convinces her to sue Nader for killing their unborn baby. The court case only gets messier. This film is shot documentary-style, which adds a sense of realism to it. Every single scene here is gut-punching, without ever being overbearing about it. Simply said, one of the best I’ve ever seen. Just prepare yourself.
I can’t help myself, here’s 9 more first-time watches I loved:
A Brighter, Summer Day (Drama/Coming of Age, 1991); All About Eve (Drama, 1950); Bande àPart (New wave/crime, 1964); Dune (Sci Fi/worms, 2021); I, Tonya (Biography/Comedy/Drama, 2017); The Killing (Noir, 1956); M (Thriller, 1931); Mulholland Drive (Noir, 2001); Suspiria (Horror, 2018);
Key Tracks: “Bank Account Anxiety,” “Face Without Eyes”
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve done a review on this site that wasn’t one for a pal or an extension from a different site or anything, but I’ll make some time for one of my absolute favorite bands – Oozing Wound. One of Chicago’s finest metal bands, and one of the country’s most underrated groups, is back with their fifth full-length album. It’s already a high watermark for 2023, though I’ve only listened to a couple of records so far.
One thing that’s obvious pretty immediately on “Cowards” is the change in direction. I had a feeling this was coming even looking at the song lengths, as they’re nearly all in a taut 4-5 minute range. There’s a uniformity there that’s normally been eschewed intentionally on their previous records. And indeed, this record sounds a lot different. Although they’re nominally a noise rock band, it’s always been safe to call Oozing Wound a thrash metal group. Songs like “Vein Ripper” have had the energy and riffs of thrash, just with a muddier production level. Well, “Cowards” is pretty distinctly a noise rock record, and a damn good one. These songs are more patient and varied, with heavier riffs and more medium tempos. Songs like “Total Existence Failure” and “Old Sludge” take more cues from old school groups like TAD than anything else, with pummeling guitars and loud but slower speeds. It’s fun to see the group lean into their other main influence, though they could keep putting out thrash-adjacent records and I’d be pleased. The production on this album – similar to their previous albums – suits the sound well. It’s a crunchy record, fuzzed out and difficult. It feels a lot more serious than their previous records, with their colorful covers and playful melodies. There’s an instrumental track in “Crypto Fash,” and a handful of songs that prove the band doesn’t have to rely on Zack Weil’s unique singing voice. There’s even credited piano and horn parts!
And yet, as much as things change, they also stay the same. The record is not without energy, it’s still distinctly Wound. Even though Oozing Wound sound like a million other bands, there’s no other bands that sound quite like Oozing Wound. And as much as they may sing on serious topics, they’re still tongue-in-cheek. The album’s title is great, and its cover looks like it’s been run through the wash. There’s songs with titles like “Crypto Fash,” “Hypnic Jerk” and “Midlife Crisis Actor.” It’s also fitting that Spotify messed up and labeled the album as being titled just “Oozing Wound,” despite the title being very readable on the cover. It’s still very fun and they’re still very funny, they’ve just adapted an updated sound. The band’s previous best songs were the super pummeling ones like “Surrounded By Fucking Morons,” but on this record, the midtempo opener “Bank Account Anxiety” is the standout. The song feels like “Colossus” by IDLES, in that it sets the record’s tone with a ceaselessly heavy, hypnotic rhythm that denies you the satisfaction of speeding up (well…”Colossus” does, but it still counts).
If you like noise rock, or punk, or thrash metal, then this is a great record by a great band. The band behind classic song titles like “Tween Shitbag” and “Everyone I Hate Should Be Killed” and “Welcome to the Spaceship, Motherfucker” has delivered yet again. I hope this album, which is much more distinctly a noise record, can find this group a proper audience. Exceptionally fun, exceptionally heavy, and exceptionally great.
If you like this, try: “God’s Country” by Chat Pile. Chances are you’ve heard that one if you’re still reading, but just in case – one of the best records of 2022, and similar to “Cowards” in the noise/metal hybrid and tongue-in-cheek yet deadly serious tone.
Welcome to the first ever edition of The _____ Chronicles! In this hopefully ongoing series I’m going to be doing deep dives into the catalogs of artists I like but haven’t explored enough. This is partially a way to jump headfirst into some daunting catalogs I’ve been putting off, but also a way to burn through some smaller ones, too. While the second edition will very much be the former, we’re starting with the latter: Zola Jesus. Imagine if I had titled this post The Jesus Chronicles? How pretentious does that sound!
Zola Jesus is really the moniker of solo singer Nika Danilova, though she’s usually backed by a consistent group. Though a recent artist and someone very much in the current zeitgeist, her music is more indebted to bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Her music is often inspired more by industrial and goth than anything else, but with the incorporation of lush atmospheres and pop vocals. It’s an interesting combo, something that sounds both progressive and timestamped to 1986.
Zola was on my radar for a bit when I become a devotee to Sacred Bones Records, but it wasn’t until Nika started dropping some harsh truths about the state of indie music on twitter that I started paying attention. I’ve heard her most recent release, 2022’s Arkhon – which brought up the rear in my alphabetical-by-artist Best Albums of 2022 list – but I’ve otherwise not heard any releases. So, I’ll be streaming and reviewing the first five studio albums, in order. These are The Spoils, Stridulum, Conatus, Taigi and Okovi.
I really dug this record. The most immediate thing to note is that there’s some earlier songs attached to the end of it, and it does alter the listening experience. The album’s final tracks follow more conventional pop song structures, but with some very rough lo-fi recording. It’s not really an extension of what came first but an attachment, and it doesn’t super work – but the songs are good, so it didn’t bother me! “The Way” is actually one of the best tracks on the album, I think.
Okay, the actual album – I think this one came out of the gates hot. The opening track “Six Feet (From My Baby)” is the best one on the album and, if we’re judging Spotify plays as gospel, the most popular one. It’s got a classically industrial percussion beat but stops just short of the genre’s standard harshness. Nika’s voice brings in some operatic qualities, which is true for the whole record. “Clay Bodies” is a solid tune, enhanced by her best performance across the album. Due to the intentionally lo-fi production, the lyrics are always obscured by both the beautiful operatic vocals and the grainy fuzziness of the studio. It creates an interesting, paradoxical atmosphere of bedroom pop made for a stadium. It also follows a trend in bands like this, to eschew any qualities that might hotshot them into a big spotlight. Indeed, most of these songs are more vibes than anything, not playing into any sort of verse-chorus-verse structure and opting for dreamy soundscapes.
There’s too much – there’s a few too many of these songs and they do start to bleed together. And, with the inclusion of the very solid but different tracks at the end, the runtime is just a little bloated. But it’s still a very engaging and encompassing album – great stuff!
Favorite track:“Six Feet (From My Baby)”
This is a perfectly logical follow-up to Spoils. It does exactly what it needs to – ups the production and puts more of a focus on the vocals. Spoils used lo-fi production to make a statement, but it wasn’t a sustainable sound, really. The vocals on this record are crisp and clean, and the lyrics are actually intelligible! Nika’s voice is absolutely the standout, hauntingly operatic and yet compellingly melodic. Her voice is simply forceful and commands each track. There is also a focus on individual instruments, from the sparse drums of opener “Night” to the keyboards on closer “Lightsick.”
But, even with these changes, there is still a distinct lack of palpable pop qualities here. These songs are still very dreamy and hypnotic, even if they come closer to being defined as “ballads.” I’m not sure if the general affect works quite as well here, as it feels like too much of a good thing, and unlike Spoils I think this album is aided by individual standout tracks. “Night,” the title track “Stridulum” and “Manifest Destiny” are all among the best Zola songs I’ve heard so far. Naturally, these are also the songs where Nika’s voice is the strongest. I didn’t like this one quite as much as the debut, but it is still very tantalizing and I’m excited to keep plugging away.
Favorite track: “Stridulum”
This one feels pretty similar to Stridulum, so I won’t spend much energy here. It’s quite good! The biggest difference is a reliance on multi-layered vocals, we hear Nika harmonizing with herself on nearly every track. It’s super effective, and mixed with the crispest production yet, we get an album that is incredibly dreamlike. For all I know, this was recorded inside a cave. This also feels like the closest thing to a solo project, as the album relies even heavier on the vocals.
Where Stridulum really was bolstered by some great songs, this one feels like a more comprehensive record. The vibes work better than ever; this is a great album to throw headphones on and disappear into. I think she and the band are really finding their proper groove here, maintaining a consistent aura without falling into a repetitive trap. There’s pop vocals and traditional sounding ballads, all wrapped up in a completely hypnotizing dreamy wash. By this point the albums are pretty consistent, but this is the best one so far.
Favorite track: “Vessel”
Well this is the biggest outlier so far, so it’s fitting that this is the only review I’m writing a few days after listening and not in the immediate aftermath. This one was a frustrating listen, it featured all of Nika’s strengths but in more of a conventional pop direction. It’s a neat left-turn, a bit of a break from the system. You can tell that Nika is doing this as a fun new direction and an experiment to push the limitations of her sound. Her voice lends itself extremely well to pop tracks, as expected. This more than any other ZJ album sounds like the project of a solo star: vocals with a backing band.
All of that said, this really isn’t that pleasant of an album to listen to. A relaxation of the focus on the music makes these songs pretty half-baked and interchangeable. They’re not bad, but they just kind of exist and nothing more. This album feels like the latter half of “one for them, one for me.” I think it was maybe more fun to produce than it is to listen to. Still, it’s a solid record! This album really reinforces the power of Nika’s voice and how it transcends the little niche she’s previously hidden herself in. It’s a decent album, but one that I won’t be revisiting.
Favorite track: “Dangerous Days”
Alright, we’re back on track. I really loved this one. I think this one might actually be my favorite, also taking Arkhon into consideration. Unlike Taiga, there’s no real reinventions happening here, just the best version of the Zola Jesus format we’ve seen yet. Nika’s vocals are particularly operatic, and there seems to be a heavier focus on repeated lyrics. This adds to the already dreamy/shoegaze-y music, which comes in louder than on previous albums. Okovi is the antithesis to Taiga, in that it feels the most like a full-band affair. The two albums likely make for a wonderful back-to-back (unfortunately my listens were separated by a weekend).
I would highly recommend this one to anyone who likes anything in the dream-pop realm, Beach House and beyond. It’s also got some drone elements that chip away at the pop melodies. It’s maybe the most engaging of all the ZJ albums. And as this completes my catalog listen-through, I think I want to call it my favorite.
Favorite track: “Soak”
This was fun! As the first installment I can’t say how often or well I’ll keep doing these, especially since I’ve got some much bigger catalogs planned – but Bowie is up next. I hope someone out there has enjoyed this, and please check out the music of Zola Jesus!
That time of year again! The time of year where the talking heads all list out their own “definitive” Best Of lists and drive up their ad revenue through rage clicks. Normally I love to participate, but this year I’ve decided not to do any sort of rankings and just list a bunch of albums I enjoyed. This is because 1) some of these bands I covered in other publications, and it feels weird to insert them into a ranked list, 2) how am I supposed to compare and contrast the house revival of Beyoncé with the industrial rap of Backxwash, the the disco pop of Charli XCX with the post-hardcore of Chat Pile, the low-key jazz of King Gizzard with the high-stakes prog of King Gizzard, and 3) I’m so tired, man. So these albums are ranked only alphabetically. However, I’ve thrown in some songs for some albums I do find particularly noteworthy. I finished the year having listened to 414 albums released between January 1st and mid-December. Yes, that’s a personal record. So without further adieu, here’s 75ish albums from this year I am simply excited to talk about!
Note: The original version of this list included the album Erebos by death metal group Venom Prison, but right before I edited it, the singer got outed with some transphobic nonsense. We don’t support that here. If you’re looking for good metal, stream their album on Spotify so they don’t get paid.
The 1975 – Being Funny In A Foreign Language
I’ve been pro-1975 for a while, but their biggest fault has always been bloat. Their albums – even at their best – have been overlong and suffering from inconsistent ambitions. This one is shorter, leaner and more scaled-down while still sounding distinctly 1975. It’s a nice surprise that’s well-needed after their previous, overlong ho-hum affair.
Actor|Observer – Songs For the Newly Reclusive
The first local entry on this list also gives me the opportunity to share the best piece of writing I did all year, when I premiered this album’s lead single. The whole album that follows is effortlessly brutal hardcore that shows both an urgency in its lyrics and a patience in the songwriting, a difficult balance to pull off. This is not hardcore for the sake of hardcore, this is a band that has a lot to say, and those messages are delivered successfully and angrily. Consistently one of the most underrated groups, Actor|Observer have done it again.
Alvvays – Blue Rev
The first two Alvvays albums were great little releases of radio-friendly powerpop, so it was a shock for their third to turn up the edge and turn down the song lengths into something that feels a little more punk-inspired. It helps to round out the band’s image and distance themselves from the overall bloat of bands they resemble. Even though it sounds smaller in scale, the album feels bigger than the ones they’ve done before.
Backxwash – His Happiness Shall Come First Even Though We Are Suffering
I’ve been a huge Backxwash fan since the moment I pressed play, so it’s no surprise that I loved her newest offering. The albums follows in the footsteps of her previous releases – finishing off a trilogy – with industrial rap/horrorcore that puts some absolute respect on the genre’s name. She’s backed up by some excellent features with Pupil Slicer and Ghais Guevara (more on him later), though as always her forceful rapping and controlled chaos beats are the focus. There’s simply no one else operating on her level.
Bad Bunny – Un Verano Sin Ti
Nothing to say that hasn’t been said already; Bad Bunny is just on another platform. The man has been releasing music like crazy, all of which manages to be breezy pop for the masses that has tons of depth and personality, and all in a language foreign to half of his American listeners (myself included). What a king.
Beach Bunny – Emotional Creature
Similar to Alvvays, Beach Bunny are one of the best in a bloated genre, and this album sees them breaking out. The album feels fuller and more mature, even though a youthful immaturity was their previous selling point. Beach Bunny are destined for megastardom, and this is another wonderful stepping stone. Pretty funny that we got two straight bunny entries, huh.
Beach House – Once Twice Melody
And right into two straight Beach entries. We gotta diversify these artist names. Anyways, Beach House had really fallen off the radar prior to 2022 – only one album in seven years, after a much more regular release schedule. That was undone with this sprawling 18-song, 84 minute sectioned album. There’s sections of classic shoegaze Beach House as well as parts that see the band dive into even more lush, dreamy territory. It’s certain to be one of their best albums, which is high praise, though anyone looking for bangers should seek elsewhere.
Beyoncé – Renaissance
The Queen was in a tough position after her album Lemonade, a decade-defining, genre-sprawling masterclass destined for the record books. No follow-up was going to feel as important or immediate, so she instead did a lower stakes house revival album. It was a necessary and perfect left turn; far from her best work, but it isn’t meant to be, and what it is still damn near perfect.
Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
Similar to Beach House, this is a behemoth, brass ring-grabbing mission statement of an album; it even came out the same week! Possibly the best indie release of the year, it sees the band take their normally reserved album ideas and stretch them into grander territory. Everything feels expanded and yet distinctly Big Thief – warm, earthy melodies accompanied by Adrienne Lenker’s tender voice and emotionally crippling lyrics. In an era where album bloat plagues every genre, Big Thief delivered an 80-minute album that still leaves the listener begging for more. They elevated themselves to Best Indie Band in 2019, a title that I believe they still hold.
billy woods – Aethiopes and Church
First double-entry! The Armand Hammer member has had a wildly prolific solo career, and both of his 2022 offerings are just great, low-stakes hip-hop albums. While the alphabetical and chronological antecedent was the better of the two albums, both showcase woods as a humble and intelligent master, unafraid to challenge rhythm and tropes.
Birds In Row – Gris Klein
Straight up one of my favorite groups, France’s Birds In Row have delivered another visceral, powerful and understated album of hardcore that establishes them as one of the genre’s most creative forces. Too many hardcore bands sound interchangeable, but Birds have always been sonically challenging, genre-defying and socially conscious, trends that have all kept up on Klein. One of the most criminally underrated groups in all of music, even if they set themselves up to have a limited audience.
Björk – Fossora
There’s a number of entries in this post that feel pointless to write – if you’re reading this on my blog, with the type of stuff I cover, then you’ve already heard Fossora. Björk rarely misses, and hasn’t missed in many years, but even for her this is a triumph. Few artists could think about the concept of mushrooms and produce an album that actually feels like the damp moss of a forest floor, but that’s what Fossora is. The mysteriousness of the forest – both innocent and unforgiving – litters this album in a way that’s pleasant and so entirely original. Quintessential Björk.
Black Dresses – Forget Your Own Face
Hyperpop is maybe the first thing to come around in music that makes me feel like I’m too old to understand, and truthfully I don’t really “get” all of this, but I do love it. This doesn’t so much move the goalposts of what “pop” can be but uproots and incinerates them. The chaotic outbursts of glitchy synth, the pessimistic lyrics and the demon-fueled screams from Ada Rook (one of the best screamers in the game today) all make this a brief album that’s equal parts fun and terrifying. Pretty good for a duo that’s technically broken up!
black midi – Hellfire
Coming into Hellfire I was hit and miss on black midi – literally, I thought their debut was a hit and the sophomore record was a miss. So I had a little trepidation, but this is easily my favorite of the three. This is extremely “me” music. Hellfire is a ton of absolutely chaotic, noisy indie songs that sound like a frustrated band taking it out in studio. I’m sure these songs are written precisely, but they often sound improvised. A little noisier and they could be mistaken for prime era Lightning Bolt. Really loved this one.
Bonny Light Horseman – Rolling Golden Holy
I’m not 100% positive this one would’ve made the list if I hadn’t just seen this band a couple weeks ago, but it’s totally deserving either way. The folk supergroup released their second album in November and it follows their debut exactly. Soft acoustic folk is met with gorgeous harmonized vocals in a collection of songs that you want to just disappear into forever. The group sounds like Fleet Foxes if they had less of an indie bend and didn’t subscribe to the concept of a frontman; the three musicians here all work equally and in tandem with one another. It’s quite possibly the prettiest album I heard all year.
Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loneliest Time
My my, there were a lot of B artists for some reason. Carly is here to dance us out of it with another album of pure pop bangers. Her previous album Dedicated was a moderately solid release, but a drop in the bucket to 2015’s game-changing E*MO*TION. This album feels closer to the latter, a self-contained collection of bangers and ballads that never tries to reinvent the wheel, just makes sure it runs as smoothly as it ever has. Anyone that doesn’t like Carly is either lying or just simply hates everything fun.
Chat Pile – God’s Country
My god, where did this one come from? The best debut album of the year is also maybe the best damn rock album of the year, too. An uncompromising, bold and enjoyable noise rock album that takes itself very seriously even if it closes with a song called “grimace_smoking_weed.jpg.” While most post-hardcore bands try to eschew any metal influences from their music, Chat Pile lean right into it with gnarly vocals, screams and – especially on “Pamela” – riffs. This is a major play by a fearsome young group.
The Chats – Get Fucked
The Australian drunk punk band is rising in popularity and facing the same issue that’s plagued many similar bands prior – soften the sound for a bigger audience, or lean into the niche. Well the album is titled Get Fucked so they sealed their own deal. This is just great, old school punk twisted through ridiculously delightful Aussie accents. Coming in at 13 songs and 28 minutes, with titles like “The Price of Smokes” and “I’ve Been Drunk in Every Pub in Brisbane,” this is a loud and raucous good time.
Danger Mouse & Black Thought – Cheat Codes
Danger Mouse, as both a producer and active musician, has always been one to ignore trends and musical climates. His full-album collaboration with arguably the most underrated rapper in the world is a very fun whirlwind that combines a lot of soul, prog and psychedelic influences that flies right by. It’s very much a throwback album to older hip-hop and something that sounds totally unique in 2022.
Demi Lovato – HOLY FVCK
Following up on the Chats is another album title that makes a statement. I’ve always had a soft spot for Lovato’s music, more so than most, and this turn back to a pop-punk/rock base is a very interesting one for her. There’s a distinct and intentional lack in subtlety, filling the album with confrontational statements that jump between honesty, heartbreak and horniness. It’s a great rebirth after a difficult period for the artist, and an album that I feel got buried too quickly.
Denzel Curry – Melt My Eyez See Your Future
Curry is one of the most interesting and energetic rappers in the world today, which makes it all the more interesting that this album opens with some slower, reflective tunes. As it moves on, we get some of Curry’s more forceful songs, but it’s a surprising left turn by an artist that specializes in messing with the formula. All of Curry’s albums are great, but this is his best since TA13OO.
Diane Coffee – With People
This absolute indie gem from the former Foxygen drummer might end up being the most overlooked album of the year. Seven of the album’s ten tracks haven’t cracked 10,000 plays on Spotify yet, people are really missing out. It’s airy and fun in the way that Foxygen is, without any of the bloated ambition. It feels similar to some of Will Butler’s solo stuff – messy, low-stakes indie music that’s a lot more playful than you might expect. There’s some really fun stuff going on here.
Ethel Cain – Preacher’s Daughter
The very last album I listened to this year that made the list – listened to on 12/30! – is something I didn’t even realize I was sleeping on. This name was not on my radar until Obama of all people put it on his year end list. Cain is like Lana Del Rey filtered through the horror puritanism of Flannery O’Connor. Daughter is a lengthy, bold debut full of Southern gothic dream-pop ballads and old school Baptist existentialism. Every song sounds similar on paper, but there’s elements of everything from gospel to sludge metal across the album, a truly unpredictable concoction. That all of this was devised by a 24 year old is wild; the future is hers.
Florence & The Machine – Dance Fever
When it comes to the unique indie/baroque pop of Flo & co, there’s really nothing wrong with “more of the same.” This excellent album sees the group treading some similar waters, although there is blendings of many different facets; it’s as synthy and danceable as it is chamber pop, which still leads to some unpredictability. We can belabor about rankings, but this might be the most fun album from them.
foxtails – fawn
I went into this totally blind, and given the album’s title and very plains-inspired cover painting, I was expecting some soft indie. So credit me surprised when the screams started; this band is legit. Mixing classic screamo with post-hardcore, indie and even some jazz elements, this is stuff that’s supremely heavy and completely unique. I immediately ran through their other albums; not a bad song among them.
Gang of Youths – Angel in Realtime
The band name might imply some tongue-in-cheek rascalness, but this is a truly serious record written as an ode to the frontman’s father. The alternative band made an early AOTY contender with an impenetrable and difficult record, one that presents a ton of sonic ideas washed over by emotional lyrics. It’s too long – much too long – but it is super rewarding, comprehensive and effortlessly intelligent music.
Ghais Guevara – There Will Be No Super-Slave
One of the best underground releases of 2022 comes from experimental rapper Ghais Guevara, who litters his album with astounding beats, experimental structures and explicitly leftist lyrics. Songs like “This Ski Mask Ain’t For COVID” and “I Personally Wouldn’t Have Released John McCain” don’t just come out of nowhere. It’s witty, earnest, extremely loud and extremely engaging. Also, check out the “Breakfast in America” sample.
Gladie – Don’t Know What You’re In Until You’re Out
My big criticism of the bands that straddle the pop-punk/indie line is that they often play it safe and don’t explore their own energy. Gladie isn’t one of those bands. The band’s sophomore album (I have yet to hear the debut!) sees them masterfully navigate both tender pop songs and raucous punk, like in the fierce opener “Born Yesterday.” It’s simply a stellar record that is comprehensive and – most importantly – simply fun.
Harry Styles – Harry’s House
I still like his debut solo album more, but his third offering is such a delightful statement release. This is fun, humble and low-key pop, an album that was sorely needed in a year where his personal life was thrust into the spotlight (due to a bad film). He’s just great at this stuff!
Interpol – The Other Side of Make Believe
After the initial hot streak Interpol went on to start their career, it became apparent that they did slower ballads better than bangers (all exceptions to “The Rover”). Their last album, Marauder, was all bangers and it’s their only album I dislike. Thankfully they slowed things down for this somber, post-punk affair. They’ll never reclaim their highs again, but I do think this is genuinely one of their best records.
Ithaca – They Fear Us
Although I felt this year wasn’t as strong as most recent years in general, it was a standout for post-hardcore groups. This album blends those influences through traditional metal/hardcore into one of the rawest releases of the year. This is not music for the faint of heart, but it is a thrilling and emotional listen. Got this one via recommendation, I will be checking out their other releases.
Jack White – Fear of the Dawn
When Jack White announced two albums – a blistering blues record and an acoustic folk one – I knew I was going to like the former more. This packs all the punches of standard wild White stuff, from blues melodies to dizzying guitar licks. There’s even a Q-Tip feature, randomly. Some people might be tired of his schtick, but I’ll always take these records.
JID – The Forever Story
Many of the rap records on this list are here because they’re innovative, nostalgic or just different from anything mainstream. But for JID, this is just a good ass rap album. His flow is impeccable across The Forever Story, which helps bolster his convincingly autobiographical lyrics. It’s a soulful album too, and one complete with some guest spots from festival big-prints like Lil Wayne and Yasiin Bey. Top notch stuff!
Jobber – Hell In A Cell
This is a band called Jobber with an EP called Hell In A Cell, of course I’m into this. It’s an extension on the Mountain Goats album Beat The Champ in that it’s centered entirely around pro wrestling (more on them later). But even if you don’t have an appreciation for the art or aren’t familiar with the brilliance of Mankind, you can still appreciate the tunes. These are four energetic indie tunes with deceptively great vocals in a wonderfully fun debut. I’m not sure if the wrestling gimmick can stay fresh over time, but I’m positive the band can.
Julia, Julia – Derealization
The debut album from the lead singer of long-running punk band The Coathangers is anything but. The album tosses away all of the politically-charged punk energy in favor of soft folk. Most of these tracks are nothing but acoustic guitar and dreamy vocals from Julia. Hell it’s often barely audible! These songs mimic a soft spring day, a pleasant morning as the sun rises. This is probably the softest record on this list.
Kal Marks – My Name Is Hell
This is one of a handful of local entries on my list, but this list would be incomplete without it. Hell is simply one of the best rock albums of the year, filled with post-hardcore tracks that are both patient and angry, heavy and melodic. The band really lays into the same space occupied by IDLES on this one, and for good reason, as they pull the sound off completely. It’s urgent and bitter, but without sacrificing some tongue-in-cheek funk as well. Absolutely hard-hitting stuff and this album should serve as a firm rebuttal to any inane person saying “rock is dead.”
Kim Petras – Slut Pop
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Omnium Gatherum and Changes
Another double entry, although in Gizz terms that’s a poor year – this is just two of the five albums they released this year (six if you count a remix album)! I enjoyed all five, though none were among the highs in their still-young, dummy prolific 23 album career so far. And the two albums selected could not be more different; Gatherum is their most expansive album yet, clocking in at 80 minutes and filled with heady concepts and challenging prog elements (sometimes). Changes meanwhile is a fun, lowkey album of breezy, jazzy pop that acts as a follow-up to their delightful Sketches of Brunswick East. Gizz celebrated their second five-album year, and while it wasn’t nearly as unmissable as 2017, there was still a lot to love.
L. S. Dunes – Past Lives
I am always a little weary of supergroups, especially emo supergroups – they often produce some ho-hum music that is a fun change of pace for the performers, but not necessarily enjoyable for the listener. But L. S. Dunes, comprised of members of My Chemical Romance, Thursday, Coheed and Cambria, and Saosin, gave us a mission statement debut album. It sounds like all of their respective bands distilled, combined, and refined, into something that is both familiar and progressive. The album hits a wide range from personal to raucous, and it’s a high recommendation if you like all – or any – of the bands that contributed members.
Leikeli47 – Shape Up
One of the best breakthroughs of the year was that of New York rapper Leikeli47, whose album Shape Up is filled top-to-bottom with short, loud bangers that all flow together in constant whiplash. You’ve probably heard the album’s first track “Chitty Bang” in a (car?) commercial, but it’s such a great track and indicative of the whole rest of the album. Though she performs behind a mask, she’s destined to breakthrough much further than she already has.
Little Simz – No Thank You
My favorite album from 2021 came from British rapper Little Simz, who pushed herself out of her comfort zone with an uncharacteristically bombastic, overstuffed mission statement album. But the spotlight wasn’t kind, and her follow-up is a much more cynical release aimed at the music industry and at the very fans that propped her up. It’s tough and fair, and an extremely deep record that does not sacrifice energy or melody for its goal. It was also released mid-December, probably to avoid all of the gun-jumping publications that publish their best of lists a month early. We wait til New Year’s Eve, here.
Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – The Harvest
I wrote in my songs post about the title track from this album and how it advances doom metal beyond its shriveling template. Well, the album follows it, an absolute sonic pummeling of riffs, synths, and dreamy moments. It feels like a record that is not supposed to take place on Earth, something from a space wasteland. It is, simply, really cool music. Plus ten points for having my favorite band name.
The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta
I don’t think anyone saw a full Mars Volta reunion & album coming, especially after a full At the Drive-In reunion and album. And if anyone did, they surely did not predict that the band would entirely leave their prog-rock comfort roots in favor of shorter, blunter pop songs with Latin flare. Naturally, the group pulled it off, a totally enjoyable clean slate of a record. The lyrics are also less cryptic and often deal with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s wife’s battle with the Church of Scientology – a heartbreaking and disgusting story, should you choose to look into it.
Meat Wave – Malign Hex
I’m a sucker for any kind of fuzzed-out garage punk, from The Trashmen to Ty Segall, and this album more than scratches that itch for me. This band does one thing and they do it remarkably well, just a full sonic blast of pedal-heavy guitar and drums. The lyrics range from tongue-in-cheek to political to honest, though the band’s punk energy is what the listener is more directed towards, anyways.
MJ Lenderman – Boat Songs
Lenderman’s name has been on my radar for a while but I had never listened until this album, as I was expecting more of a tepid, sad boy indie schtick a la FJM. To my surprise, it was an album of fun, humorous and fuzzed-out indie that sounded closer to the days of Pavement than anything else. It feels unserious and off-the-cuff, in all the best ways.
The Mountain Goats – Bleed Out
The Goats are never bad, but in their current prolific period, they’ve released some albums that don’t stand against their best. Bleed Out does. Like some other recent Goats albums, this is one is hyper-focused on a concept John Darnielle finds interesting; this time around we get songs about action films. This is also the loudest Goats album – the first to center around electric guitar and rock-driven songs, courtesy of production from Alicia Bognanno, from one of my favorite groups Bully. It’s one of my favorites of the year, and I think it’s a contender for top 5 Goats albums; impressive when you remember it’s their 21st (!!) studio album.
Nerina Pallot – I Don’t Know What I’m Doing
One of the most talented and underrated songwriters in all of music delivered again on her seventh studio album, a work filled with homely, lush and self-reflective ballads. She’s a talented musician, but her strength has always been her beautiful voice and her brutally honest lyrics. Her music has remained popular in the UK but she’s never been even a blip here in the States, I yearn for that to change.
Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds
One of the joys of maturity is realizing how stupid I used to sound when I would say something dismissive like “I don’t like country music.” While it’s true that the country-pop that dominated the charts when I was a teen still doesn’t appeal to me, I’ve come to appreciate outlaw country. This is the best country release I heard all year, a collection of low-stakes, unassuming country tunes that are simply fun as hell. These songs are personal, but they’re bops. The album is earworms galore. It’s an album that may not leave a huge impression on first listen, but one that draws you back multiple times. Really fun stuff and a nice antidote to many of the other entries on my list.
Oceanator – Nothing’s Ever Fine
This one was a nice surprise! I checked this one out as sole Oceanator member Elise Okusami was on tour with Jeff Rosenstock, an automatic win in my book. It’s a ripping, fun and earnest indie debut with a bit of edge on some tracks. There’s still room for some folksy elements too. It sounds well-worn and patient, all the more impressive for a debut!
Orville Peck – Bronco
I think it’s no secret that I’m a devoted Peck-head, his debut album Pony rapidly became one of my all-time favorites. I was a little concerned after his follow-up EP was frustratingly saccharine, but the proper sophomore album picks up exactly where Pony left off: alt-country bangers and ballads, all sung from behind a mask, from a gravelly voice with the gravitas of an old West gunslinger. But also, it’s queer. If I really had to choose – and the point of this list is that I don’t – this might be my favorite album of the year.
Otoboke Beaver – Super Champon
I knew in my heart that a band like Otoboke Beaver existed, such a delight to finally find them. The group mixes Japanese pop and noise influences into a blend of punk that’s both absolutely ripping and completely fun. It’s a balance of J-pop and Melt Banana, with bouncy, gang vocals and lyrics inspired by both feminism and comedy, all delivered in a micro package. With song titles like “Dirty Old Fart Is Waiting For My Reaction” and only two songs over two minutes, this is an absolute riotous, unique blast.
Perennial – In the Midnight Hour
I had the immense pleasure of interviewing 2/3rds of this band and hosting the album premiere, so I am a little biased here, but 11 months later and this remains in my top 5 releases for the year. The band, inspired heavily by noise-punk groups like Be Your Own Pet, mesh punk, post-hardcore and experimental elements into something that is as chaotic as it is fun. This album is an unabashed good time, an apocalypse party, full of spooky influences. My only complaint is that it’s over too soon; 10 of the 12 tracks don’t hit the two minute mark!
Perfume Genius – Ugly Genius
Perfume Genius is always an automatic shoo-in for any best of lists, and this year’s offering is no different. After his surprisingly guitar-driven album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, he tones things way down for a sparse, dreamy production. It’s as brilliant and heartbreaking as anything he’s done before, and by this point I think he’s incapable of producing something that isn’t like this.
Petrol Girls – Baby
This album is a pure refusal of complacency. Loud, brash, dissonant and angry, this is what hardcore punk is really about. The British group funnels explicitly feminist lyrics and harsh vocals through pumping drums and power chords. Not every track kicks into the highest gear, but every one does crack with earnest fury and political anxiety that resonates across the pond. Punk can never, and will never die.
Porridge Radio – Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky
I never know quite what to make of Porridge Radio. On paper, you can call them an indie band, but they rope in many outside influences from post-punk to pop. It’s often loud, and it’s horribly depressing. Their unique sound is on full display here, through melancholic ballads and rhythmic ennui. It’s a top-heavy album, but the good is very good. Not for someone with a cheery disposition.
Pretty Sick – Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile
It’s always refreshing to me, a total grunge head, to hear any band that hearkens back to the cursed early 90’s. Pretty Sick sounds like one step forward from bands like Hole, Lunachicks and L7, with a messy, angry and riot grrrl-adjacent sound. Pretty Sick doesn’t always push up the volume here, but when they do, their curated sloppiness could mark a dead ringer for a band thirty years their prior. What I’m saying is, this is extremely me music.
PUP – The Unraveling of PUPTHEBAND
Another contender for my favorite album of the whole damn year comes from Canada’s pop-punk-kinda group PUP, who stuck a necessary landing. Each album of theirs has seen increased visibility and fans, as well as just being better than the one prior. So for their fourth album to be a meta concept album about whether they should sell out and go big or make a weird concept punk album, and how it tears the band apart, is bold, brilliant and damn near perfect. It’s fierce and rough, tongue-in-cheek while also being brutally critical of the music industry. It warrants repeated listens, especially to catch little narrative details.
Saba – Few Good Things
One of the most flawless rap albums of the year comes from Saba, who spends each track on his album wearing his heart on his sleeve and masking it at the same time. These lyrics are brutally honest and deep in a way rap lyrics often aren’t (and don’t have to be!). And yet, the music is soft and dense, mimicking the flowers on the album’s cover. There’s an affirming warmness to this record that separates it from the year’s other rap records, even the ones on this list. It’s a shame this one has yet to pull in a wider audience.
SAULT – Today & Tomorrow
I’ve been preaching the gospel of SAULT to anyone who will listen for a couple years now, so imagine my childish grin when the anonymous R&B group released not one but six albums this year. They range from their standard R&B, to borderline gospel and even an atmospheric ambient album. The best was this one, which sees them take their standard crisply produced R&B and up the ante with funk, disco and even some punk elements. This one was a party album, which perfectly soundtracked me wrapped Christmas presents. Long Live SAULT.
Slipknot – The End, So Far
Well, it finally happened – Slipknot made their critical darling record. Their sound, and more importantly their misanthropic angst, was never going to keep up through all the years. This aptly-titled album could serve as a turning point, as it does feature some loud, abrasive metal tracks but a softer side as well. It doesn’t always work – quiet opener “Adderall” is ironically interminable – but the signs point to a changing band, one ready to experiment and embrace the adulthood that washes away all that juvenile anger. It should’ve happened a few albums ago, but hey the formula still worked.
The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention
Yeah, yeah, Radiohead is my desert island band so naturally I loved this offshoot project. It allows Thom & Jonny et al to let loose and have fun, while also making some songs that would be minimalistic even by Radiohead standards. It’s tough not to compare it to Radiohead albums – it doesn’t stand up to most – but that’s a high grading curve. It’s a great debut and a record that has deserved more of my time this year.
Soul Glo – Diaspora Problems
Credit to any band who can find a way to innovate within a scorned genre. Soul Glo are, by all descriptions, a rap-rock group, but one that play with full intensity and unpredictably. It’s part Death Grips, part 80’s experimentation, and no parts 00’s chuggy riffs and cringey lyrics. This is direct, honest and political stuff and it’s one of the most exciting records of 2022. It has no trouble getting abrasive and confrontational – it is supposed to be a shocking genre, after all.
Spoon – Lucifer on the Sofa
One of the very first albums I heard in 2022 was a welcoming breath of, well, stale air. Spoon’s tenth album sees the band reverting back to the fundamental indie music of their mid-00’s heyday. It’s a welcome joy, as the band proves they can still write some indie bangers, and it’s their best album in years. Focused, pleasant and timeless, this is a high notch in their catalog. Spoon is back, baby.
Sudan Archives – Natural Brown Prom Queen
The first Sudan Archives album was a patient and well-rounded R&B record that seemed to promise better things. Well, her sophomore album is the better thing. One of the best albums of the year sees the singer/violinist assume a first-person role in a concept album taking place in her Cincinnati hometown. It’s an overstuffed, comprehensive and funky release that never overstays its welcome and never teeters on self-indulgence when it could easily do both. It’s earnest and it’s refreshingly original. Truly remarkable piece of work.
Sylvan Esso – No Rules Sandy
This is easily the most ambitious album from the vibes-heavy indie band, a band who approach their albums with a “try anything” attitude. Although it rests at 16 tracks, it’s really made up of 5 or so sections with interludes, split into more bite-sized songs. It creates more of a nightclub DJ feel than their previous, minimalistic dance tracks. It’s still the same fun, warm and light-hearted music as always, though.
They Are Gutting A Body Of Water – s
This one was a wrench thrown into this list – I listened to it after 50+ of the entries in this post had already been written! I’d heard multiple people sing their praises but I jumped in totally blind. It’s shoegaze-based music, but with elements of trap, DNB and chiptune – really a hodgepodge of “off the beaten path” genres tossed into a blender. The result is something totally unique and nearly indescribable – all rules tossed out the window. I really dig this.
Titus Andronicus – The Will to Live
I wrote extensively about this album when I covered their live show, but what I’ll say here is that this is the first time Patty Stix et co. have successfully wrangled their ambitious side with their complying side; it’s really the first time they’ve even tried. This is a concept album, albeit a loose one, but not a hyper-inflated overlong grand affair like their other two concept albums (their best and worst releases, respectively). Instead, it’s a controlled record, one of a band recognizing their own heights but still reaching them. Seeing some of these tracks live helped me to contextualize how this is not a punk record but a rock and roll one, and even if this album was birthed from grief, they’re settling into adulthood surprisingly nicely.
Van Buren Records – DSM
Another local release that ranks among my very favorites from this year comes from Brockton MA’s rap collective. The album is bold and boisterous, with a cascade of different vocalists that allows each song and hell, each verse to sound fresh and fun. This album stays well within the realm of comfortability, and when the group is as good as they are, there’s no reason not to. It’s a blast, turn it up.
Vince Staples – Ramona Park Broke My Heart
Ramona Park acts as a follow-up to 2021’s weirdly disappointing self-titled release, and thankfully it reclaims the magic of older days. And yet, this doesn’t sound like Vince. Gone are the abrasive beats, experimental rhythms and worrying lyrics, replaced with beats and melodies that are crisp, fluid and conventional. Vince is still Vince though, and these tunes are grippingly reflective and earnest. This is as good as anything Staples has ever done. He barely misses.
Wet Leg – Wet Leg
I was absolutely delighted that the new duo Wet Leg was able to capitalize on their surprise debut hit “Chaise Longue” with a great first album. It did exactly what it needed to – prove the group wasn’t a one-trick pony, with a collection of songs that don’t exactly sound similar but feel similar. It’s infectious and hysterical, with tons of pop hooks and plenty of curveballs. The band sounds wise beyond their years, and yet songs like “Piece of Shit” and “Ur Mom” show off their playful immaturity. If by any chance you’re still reading this, then you’ve probably already heard this record, but what was I gonna do, not include it?
Weyes Blood – And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t like Titanic Rising as much as most, so I approached this one with caution. It floored me. This album is filled with stunningly beautiful chamber pop that feels warm despite the cold, cynical lyrics. It really is unpleasant stuff but presented in a more welcoming fashion. After some disappointments from the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, we needed a late-year album of breathtaking ballads like this.
Wilco – Cruel Country
In a way, this is Wilco coming full circle. They toyed early on with country influences before mostly abandoning them for an indie sound. And now, twelve albums in, they’ve embraced it entirely. After a few albums of comfortable complacency, Wilco gifted us with a double album of moody country that welcomes the sound Wilco pushed off twenty years ago. It’s maybe too long and a bit unnecessary, but it stands as a fun and welcome outlier in the catalog – their best albums usually are.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Cool It Down
What a relief this album was. The band’s quest for a total reinvention with each album petered out after 2013’s unlistenable record Mosquito. After nearly a decade of radio silence, they’ve done another full 180. Cool It Down, another in a series of aptly-named records on this list, comes close to ambient territory, with its atmospheric rhythms and airborne feel. It’s clearly a new territory for all members, and if the album had run beyond it’s short runtime it could’ve easily fallen repetitive, but the band keeps it tight. Fans looking for bruisers like “Man” are going to be severely disappointed, but this is a fascinating rebirth.
Zeal & Ardor – Zeal & Ardor
My favorite type of metal is usually “whatever would make the purists mad” and I figure this counts. Black metal, as much as I love it, has a storied history intertwined with full-on Nazism, so it is refreshing to hear a black metal artist who is, well, black. The album combines traditional black metal sounds with African influences, jazz, even a damn stomp-clap. It is sonically and lyrically subversive, a meting pot of influences determined to keep you guessing, especially in a genre where repetition is usually the biggest fault. I recommend this to anyone who even remotely likes metal.
Zola Jesus – Arkhon
Zola’s music expertly walks a line between conventional pop/indie and synthy goth throwback to the 80’s post-punk scene. Arkhon is no exception, as songs bounce to and from these competing influences to create a landscape that is hypnotically catchy and yet grim and moody. It’s often very fun and unpredictable, as some songs search for that catchy rhythm and others eschew it completely. This one flew well under the radar, and I wish it hadn’t.
Just for fun and self-indulgence, here’s some other albums I nearly included in this list:
Charli XCX – Crash (pop/hyperpop), Fontaines D.C. – Skinty Fia (indie/post-punk/Ireland), Froglord – Army of Frogs (stoner metal band that sings about frogs), Lizzo – Special (pop/R&B/it’s Lizzo), Sasami – Squeeze (indie/noise rock), Thee Oh Sees – A Foul Form (80’s thrash metal/hardcore throwback)
Well we’ve hit the end of the year, the time where I spend hours writing about the music I loved for 1-12 readers! As with most years, I focused more on albums than individual songs, so a grand albums post will be forthcoming. But there were more than a few songs I loved at first sight listen, and unlike my albums post, I’ve decided to try and feebly do a ranking of them. I did not put much effort into the actual list and have absolutely forgotten something necessary, but I did work on the rankings. So here’s 30 songs I truly loved:
#30. Archive – “Mr. Daisy”
I came into this band by chance from a Facebook group talking about a song of theirs from 2009, only to discover that they’re still going strong and remain very popular in Europe. The band doesn’t contain themselves within genre, venturing anywhere between trip-hop and nu-metal. They released 2 albums this year, and a standout song is this track, a post-rock inspired alt tune that’s simple, fun and nostalgic. I’m excited to dive deep into this band’s catalog next year.
#29. Robert Stillman – “Cherry Ocean”
This is likely the most divisive and maybe the most obscure song on this list, as something that probably won’t appeal much to my core audience (those 4 people). Stillman’s soft, somber, 8+ minute jazz track sets the tone for the following album, though it’s the only song on it with lyrics. The song is sparse and drone-adjacent, but the scraps of melody are haunting and intriguing. Even though it’s a repetitive minimalist song, I find myself coming back to it repeatedly. It’s a warm and forgiving place to be.
#28. Meat Wave – “Honest Living”
This is my kind of thing – two-minute sucker punch of fuzz guitar and wicked vocals. I’m a sucker for even the worst garage rock, it’s my go-to and my comfort music, and Meat Wave’s recent album more than satisfies that crave within me. “Living” is a punk bruiser with depressingly satirical lyrics about the grind of the workforce. Throw in some good vocal rhythms to boot and you’ve got a memorable little garage punk tune.
#27. Gladie – “Born Yesterday”
A lot of indie-punk bands like to play it safe and merely threaten to go full throttle. Gladie aren’t that band, and they kick off their recent release with a amp-busting banger that makes a statement. I wasn’t aware of this band just a few weeks ago, and now I’m excited to see where they go from here. I’ve also just seen them live and can confirm that this track kills in a concert setting.
#26. Björk & serpentwithfeet – “Fungal City”
Leave it to Björk to make a “mushroom” album, a delightful and occasionally suspicious soundscape that makes it sound like you are lying on the forest floor. The album’s highlight and most on-point track is “Fungal City,” which barely hangs on to any rhythms to create a damp, foresty environment. It starts soft, gets heavy, and stays weird. I don’t know how you even approach crafting a song like this, but it is yet another Björk classic.
#25. The Smile – “You Will Never Work in Television Again”
I’m not really interested in debating whether Radiohead is done or what this offshoot means for their legacy – it’s a different project, no more no less. While the album mostly just sounds like Radiohead, this song has some rough energy that hasn’t been in the band’s music for many years. Very funny that they’ve played this on late night shows, hopefully they’ll play on Corden soon.
#24. The Beths – “Expert in a Dying Field”
If I were to somehow manage to actually list out my 10 or so favorite songs, the Beths would be the only repeat artist on that list. Count this one among the handful of their songs that I really love. Lush and heartbreaking lyrics and vocal melodies all contain themselves within a simple indie/punk song. This group always seems to find interesting ways to sing about despair and ennui, and this one is no different. Add in some of Elizabeth Stokes’s characteristically intriguing vocal rhythms and you’ve got another Beths banger.
#23. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – “The Harvest”
I treat doom metal like a sandwich – if it’s plain then fine, I’ll take it, but I probably won’t really enjoy it. Doom metal to me has to do something to tinker with the formula, and this song does just that. The Best Band Name in the World take a classic doom metal song structure and add synths and dreamy vocals into something fuller. It’s heavy and brutal, while still feeling fun and atmospheric. The band has always done stuff like this well, but this song and album is a high watermark for them.
#22. Van Buren Records – “FOUL”
One of my favorite rap records of the year came from a local group, Van Buren Records. The large collective makes fun and urgent music with a cascade of voices. The group is at their best when they’re moving quickly, as they do here. No voice or idea overstays its welcome, especially with key features. This is such fun stuff.
#21. Slipknot – “The Chapeltown Rag”
Slipknot’s new album was a divisive one – there was a lot of really stupid discourse around it including the phrase “Slipknot’s Radiohead album.” I loved it for the way it wraps together a more mature, balanced sound with some of their old angry bangers. Well this is the latter, just an old-fashioned Slipknot ear-gouger. Dopey lyrics about violence, manic drums (RIP Joey) and unexpectedly good vocals, this is classic Slipknot. It’s great that they’re finally moving past this kind of stuff, but it’s wild they can still do it so well, too.
#20. Billy Nomates – “spite”
“Don’t you act like I ain’t the fuckin’ man” rips Tor Maries across the chorus of this indie banger. I’m very unfamiliar with her work – I’ve heard a few songs and keep forgetting to check out more. But, this one recently grabbed my attention on the radio. It’s bold and brash while staying well within an indie song, a contained anger that’s delightful as it is genuine. It feels like a victory lap set to music, a ceiling-puncher and a song that probably kills live. I’m on board, now.
#19. 8 Kalacas – “Frontera”
I’m aware the phrase “ska metal” sounds about as off-putting as fruitcake but this song is wild. I first wrote about it in my “Songs You May Have Missed” midyear post and I’m going after it again. This song has horns and riffs and it’s an absolute blast to listen to. A sonic assault that lies more in metal than ska, this really isn’t like anything I’ve heard before. Part of that also lies in the lyrics – silly music is mixed with a dead serious story about a Mexican immigrant realizing the American Dream is a lie and sadly moving back home. The band has Latin roots that add an authenticity to the music that is often missing in wretched, ironic white guy ska. I urge folks to give this one a chance.
#18. Big Thief – “Simulation Swarm”
Big Thief make so many songs that are so heartbreakingly gorgeous that it doesn’t feel fair to other bands. “Simulation Swarm” isn’t nearly as good as 2019’s “Not” or 2020’s “anything” (from singer Adrienne Lenker solo), and yet it still makes the list. The music is calm and patient, featuring the effortless, minimalistic melancholy that the band is known for, and it’s complemented by Lenker’s soft, earworm vocal rhythm. As always, her unique voice elevates this into classic territory. Big Thief forever.
#17. My Chemical Romance – “The Foundations of Decay”
It’s so amazing to me that this exists at all. MCR’s first new release in nearly a decade, and it follows their path of switching up their sound with each album. I don’t know if a proper album is to follow – maybe they don’t, either – but I’d be intrigued if it does. This is slower and denser than you’d expect from MCR, more grown-up now than before. As per usual, the song rests on Gerard Way’s deceitfully strong vocals, but the whole band sounds great. This isn’t as flashy as the group used to be, and therefore the song is a grower – I wasn’t impressed on first listen, but after getting to see it done live (twice!) it’s won me over.
#16. Soul Glo – “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?)”
I didn’t plan for this to be so close to 8 Kalacas but it’s only fitting. Soul Glo presents an equally scorned genre – rap-rock – in a way that’s genuine and refreshing. The opening track to their downright remarkable album Diaspora Problems is a manic, full-octane track that sounds dangerous. Inspired as much by hardcore punk and glitch as they are traditional rap and rock, this is “rap-rock” in the same sense that Death Grips is, not Machine Gun Kelly.
#15. Chat Pile – “Why”
Why do people have to live outside? is the simple question and refrain posited by post-hardcore upstarts Chat Pile. The centerpiece of a Top 5 of 2022 album is also one of the most bluntly political songs of the year (or ever, really). It’s a shakedown of America’s quiet housing crisis sung with a genuine, guttural anger. It feels like everyone in the country is boiling over with anger over their beliefs of choice, and that’s palpable on this barely-contained song. Anyone with an ounce of empathy can relate here, even if it’s abrasive on the ears.
#14. The Mountain Goats – “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome”
It only took 21 studio albums for Mountain Goats to do their first true rock song. An album centered around low-budget action movies needed an energetic boost, so Darnielle et al up the energy for really, the first time in their storied career. Admittedly there are better songs across the unexpectedly great album, but this is my list dammit so I’m picking this one. Although the Goats have carved out their own niche in alternative music, I’d be curious to hear more of this side, too!
#13. Paramore – “The News”
I nearly disqualified this one for recency bias, it was released only a few days before I started this post. But it’s so damn good. Save for a pop-punk heavy debut recorded when they were all around 15, Paramore hasn’t released a bad song, and I’m delighted this stretch is continuing after a multi-year hiatus. The song abandons their more recent new-wave stuff for a return to fiery pop-rock, with more bite than they’ve ever had. There’s a fierceness that cuts through the music here, but also the melody is an instant earworm. I’ve only heard this song twice and it’s already so high.
#12. Fontaines D.C. – “Jackie Down the Line”
Imagine my frustration in 2019 when I first heard this group, a severely Irish post-punk group, only to be sufficiently bored by their album. I wanted to like it and decided to dive into the follow-up with an open mind and, thankfully, liked it much more. This is definitely the song I “sang” the most this year (as it’s not sung but spoken), because it allowed me to practice a ridiculous Irish accent. But it’s a great tune that’s simultaneously despondent and lively. There’s a lot of talk-sing post-punk bands coming out of the UK area (alongside IDLES, Black Country New Road and Dry Cleaning) and I’ve got varying opinions on it; this band has thankfully fallen in my good favor.
#11. MJ Lenderman – “Tastes Just Like It Costs”
Lenderman is an artist I ignored for a while because I thought he was the same brand of tired, acoustic stuff that Father John Misty occupies. My face was red when I finally spun an album, the great Boat Songs. This was my favorite song, a lively and fuzzy guitar track with a touch of humor but a melancholic vocal melody. This song, like much of the album, owes a debt of gratitude to the early alt groups like Meat Puppets and Dinosaur Jr. – a well I will never run dry. This is another catalog I will be diving into soon.
#10. black midi – “Sugar/Tzu”
I loved black midi’s debut only to be frustrated by the sophomore album. Their third righted the course and gave me what I think is their best song yet. “Sugar/Tzu” is one of the most raucous songs I’ve heard all year, manic talk-sung vocals mixing with a steady, revolving central rhythm and frequent…interruptions? The music video follows a boxing match, which is very fitting, as the resembles what it feels like to get beat up. The song sounds borderline improvised, closer to prime era Lightning Bolt than any of their more radio-friendly peers. I cannot overstress how wild this song is.
#9. L.S. Dunes – “Permanent Rebellion”
In most cases, I will side with any artist’s louder, more energetic tunes. This debut track from emo supergroup L.S. Dunes is no exception. The expectation-obliterating album’s penultimate song is also the loudest and most abrasive of the bunch, a throwback to all of the respective members’ heydays. The verses here are standard rock stuff, but the choruses hold a thrilling punch that separate Dunes from most supergroups; this isn’t a fun side project, this is a group with a statement to make. The emo revival will never die, baby.
#8. Weyes Blood – “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody”
Natalie Mering is two albums into a trilogy that’s essentially about going through the rough of it. It’s sad enough on principle, and this album follows in the footsteps of 2019’s Titanic Rising by opening with the best song of the bunch. “Not Just Me” is a gorgeous chamber pop song, a heavenly ballad set over little more than vocals, harp and drums. It’s a dreamy, absorbing song with nightmarish lyrics about human suffering and ignorance. The album that follows is more of the same – and it’s one of the best of the year. But this one in particular is just a completely devastating yet rewarding listen.
#7. Weird Nightmare – “Searching For You”
When I heard that METZ frontman Alex Edkins was releasing a solo record, I had a feeling I knew what it would sound like – more melodic and alternative-based than his primary band, while retaining much of the energy. I was right, this song sounds like the crushing assault of (loudest band I’ve ever seen live) METZ filtered through the Minutemen. It’s loud and aggressive but it’s got a great rhythm and a more subdued approach. Like a few other songs on this list, it owes some to 90’s guitar alternative, revamped for today.
#6. Spoon – “Wild”
It’s very rare that a band can maintain a similar sound for decades and keep it fresh; they’ll either start to sound repetitive (AC/DC) or settle into a relaxed vibe (Wilco). But Spoon isn’t most bands, and “Wild” sounds like the same Spoon from 2005. They’re revamped and reinvigorated and they’re all the better for it. Britt Daniel’s odd singing voice remains the band’s best strength, as this would be a very standard song without it, but the Neil Young-like vocals elevate this to a Certified Spoon Classic.
#5. Leikeli47 – “Chitty Bang”
This song is just about as fun as music can get. The masked rapper kicks off her consistently excellent third album with this immaculately-produced bop. I don’t understand how this song isn’t topping the charts, I challenge anyone to spin it and sit still. A hip-hop song with pop structure and production, this song should really appeal to just about everyone. Although the artist has chosen to remain private, I hope 2023 sees her absolutely blow up.
#4. Gogol Bordello – “Fire On Ice Floe”
This one is circumstantial – after Peter Murphy checked into rehab and Bauhaus canceled their reunion tour, Riot Fest had to scramble to book a medium-big, evening act. Eugene Hutz and gang filled in, and delivered the best festival set I’ve ever seen (and went 10 minutes over, much to the chagrin of Glenn Danzig). I didn’t know this song when they played it, as it had only been released days prior, but they jammed on the chorus for an extended period. The easy, melodic refrain of “dance, dance, dance into the fire” had the massive audience all singing and dancing along. Although the band was there to promote defense for Ukraine, they still turned the set into an absolute party. This may or may not be a great song, but my vision will always be blinded by how I was first introduced to it.
#3. Perennial – “Tooth Plus Claw”
Again I am blinded, because my first interaction with this band’s music was when I had a chance to interview them (they’re really fun people to chat with, folks). This song doesn’t eclipse 90 seconds, just a dance-punk whirlwind that’s extremely high energy and just as fun. It’s loud and brash, but – like the rest of their album – is done entirely as a party. This is a throwback to The Hives and Be Your Own Pet, bands with short songs and contained chaos, that always still rely on melody above all. Love this so much.
#2. Arlo Parks – “Softly”
Arlo Parks just missed out on both my favorite song and album lists last year, and her sole release in 2022 is better than everything she delivered in 2021. This is one of those songs that will have you crying in seconds even though it’s a wholesome love song. The vocal melody perfectly matches the pure lyrics, a quiet message to a (potential?) lover. Her voice dominates over the music, seemingly mixed at a higher volume than a normal song would be. I’m not one for listening to songs on repeat but I could easily play this one for an hour.
#1. Orville Peck – “Daytona Sand”
Big surprise, the guy who goes by Orville Shrek on twitter loves the music of Orville Peck. There’s something about the mysterious, masked, Canadian, queer outlaw country/alternative singer that just works for me. The opening track to his stellar sophomore album Bronco picks up where Pony left off; the forlorn western lyrics, the driving snare drum and Peck’s deliciously commanding bass voice all propel this to the #1 spot. It’s catchy, fun and yet melancholic, and it’s probably my favorite song of the year.
For fun, here’s some songs that didn’t make the cut:
Beyoncé – “Break My Soul” (should’ve made the list, but do I really need to tell you about this one?)
The Linda Lindas – “Racist Sexist Boy”
Interpol – “Gran Hotel”
Rammstein – “Angst”
HEALTH & The Body – “AD 1000”
Thanks for reading this far! I wouldn’t have! I’ll be posting more year-end stuff, specifically an albums post on NYE and a films post sometime when I feel like.
As I continue a hostile takeover of my own long-dormant blog, I had the idea to do a weekly post to highlight four things I loved this week – gonna see if I can keep it to one film, one wrestling match and two albums (one old, one new), all of which will be under-the-radar stuff. As in, this week I watched “The Usual Suspects” for the first time, and listened to Don McLean’s “American Pie” album for the first time, but you already know about those things so there’s no point in exercising my knuckles to tell you about them.
Of course, things won’t always align like that and I’m sure I’ll straight up forget to do this +50% of the time, but whatever it’s my blog I can do what I want here.
#1. Diane Coffee – “With People” (2022)
This album came to me via recommendation, as I, just like everyone else, seemed to have completely missed it dropping. Diane Coffee is an ex-drummer of Foxygen and appeared on the second Run The Jewels album. I admittedly have not really kept up with their solo work over the years, but their name never dropped off my radar, so to see the criminally low play counts on their new album on Spotify was shocking. Folks, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s an eclectic indie mix, complementing tuneful music with off-kilter vocals, like a more energetic Hamilton Leithauser. A guest spot from Deep Sea Diver really seals the deal, too. There were a couple really great new releases I checked out this week, but this one is the most undeservedly overlooked. We’re talking album of the quarter stuff, here.
Other new releases I recommend: Black Dresses – “Forget Your Own Face,” Moonlight Sorcery – “Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity,” black midi – “Hellfire”
#2. “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” (1932)
I’d been meaning to check this flick out ever since the ending action sequence made the rounds on twitter a few months back. I’ve seen a share of 30’s movies now and one issue I have with most dramas is inconsistency – segments of action followed by long stretches of nothing, etc. It might be worth noting that two films that kept me consistently engaged were this and “Scarface” – both films from 1932, and both starring Paul Muni. This one follows a WWI vet as he’s wrongfully arrested for simply being in a restaurant when it gets robbed. Once he’s thrown on a chain gang, he commits an actual crime of busting out and going on the lam. It’s years until he’s found, as he’s changed his identity and become a man of his local community, but a wicked government throws him back in prison and then lies about how long they’re keeping him there. It’s dark and it’s cynical, and both getaway scenes are brimming with genuinely thrilling action. I really don’t know why this film – and it’s cool, helpful title – are not talked about more often.
Other films I watched for the first time this week: The Usual Suspects (1995), Zombieland Double Tap (2019), Willy’s Wonderland (2021).
#3 Kasey Kirk vs. Danny Demanto – ICW No Holds Barred 24 (4/1/22)
Realistically, I don’t know if I’ll spend the time writing about matches each week, because I don’t really pore over old footage at all and just stick to a handful of American promotions (Impact, GCW, ICWNHB, H2O, sometimes AEW, and a few other indies I’ll check out if the cards are good). I spent some time this week catching up on ICWNHB shows – my favorite deathmatch promotion. I’ve been with them since early on in the chains rebranding at the top of 2020, but they spent much of that year & 2021 being a cool, ho-hum deathmatch company with a couple noteworthy moments (60 minute ironman match, new title). In 2022, Demanto’s org has suddenly made a major push for recognition on the independent scene, with nearly every chains event being well worth your time, if you can stomach the violence. Coupled with that is the sudden push to give Kasey Kirk a spotlight as a singles competitor and not just a valet/interferer for her husband Brandon. She’s already defeated John Wayne Murdoch, Joel Bateman, and her own damn husband (in a very fun match I saw in person!) so for her to go up against, and beat, the head of the company – well it just made sense. Kasey and Danny don’t hold back – I mean, it’s Danny Demanto – as the violence escalates to thrilling and uncomfortable levels. 2022 has felt like a solid year for women in deathmatch wrestling, and this match is a highlight of that.
#4. Repulsion – “Horrified” (1989)
If you’ve for some reason continued to read this far, then you may already be familiar with the sole studio album from the band Repulsion. There’s more than enough gaps in my knowledge for me to call myself a metalhead – I mean, I kicked this piece off writing about Diane Coffee – but I closed one this week. The album was a massive influence on a generation of (largely worse) death metal, goregrind and grindcore groups. The tracks are direct in their filth, with song titles like “Splattered Cadavers,” “Bodily Dismemberment,” and “Festering Boils.” If there’s a body part, there’s a song. This album also sets the tone for grindcore moving forward, at 18 songs and 29 minutes. There’s a certain something in the production of this album that feels particularly grimy – every song sounds very rough and muddy without being overbearing. It feels like something that’s been mimicked a thousand times but never copied. “Horrified” won’t win any new fans to metal, but it should be a mandatory listen for anyone trying to trace the roots of grindcore et al.
Other older releases I enjoyed for the first time this week: Don McLean – “American Pie” (1971), The Buggles – “The Age of Plastic” (1980), Spoon – “A Series of Sneaks (1998), Oathbreaker – “ErosAnetros” (2013), Lingua Ignota – “All Bitches Die” (2018)
That’s four things I enjoyed this week! I’d like to keep this going weekly, or perhaps I’ll do one monthly as this took longer than I expected. If you actually read any of this, thanks! That’s very nice of you! I hope you feel an urge to check any of these out if they’re up your alley. Feel free to send me any recs of stuff you think I may enjoy as well!
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a proper review on this site, so it’s only fitting that my first post back is covering two new songs by Kira Velella – someone whose last release I covered nine long years ago. Velella is back with two new singles released independently of each other, though the songs feel intertwined conceptually.
“Even Then,” the newer of the two songs, follows a familiar but comforting folk-country format. Velella starts the song by complementing a soft guitar rhythm with stronger vocals – the song’s central focus. They’re joined later by drums and steel pedal (courtesy of Kenny Shaw and Ryan Hommel, respectively), but it’s clear that your attention should settle solely on Velella here. Her vocal rhythms feel warmly optimistic, as do her lyrics, which weave a tale of imperfections in a healthy relationship. The song’s verses are a one-sided conversation to a lover, founded on the repetition of the phrase “Even when” – i.e. “Even when I start the fight / Even when I know you’re right / Even when I’m sorry comes too slow / Even then I know you won’t go.” Think of it as a total flip of Big Thief’s miserable (but wonderful) song “Not.” The song plays like a written letter left as a secret to be found later, a secret we’re privy to as listeners.
“You Light Me Up” – released back in October despite taking place on the Fourth of July – follows a related musical path as “Even Then.” “Light” is a tender folk song, missing the slight country influence of “Even” but similar otherwise. Everything feels a little more balanced on “Light,” with Velella’s vocals falling more into the mix and a soothing drum rhythm taking more prominence. Guitar remains a focus, but there’s a faint piano line hidden behind everything else that adds some nice ambiance. The song is also an ode to an imperfect but cherished relationship, with a warm nostalgia, but more hints of vulnerability. The relationship in this song still sounds lovely, but something about it feels a little less concrete than in “Even Then.” Everything detailed in the song is in the past, looking back on good times, as opposed to a continuous presence. In both of these songs, Velella nails the complicated human mistakes and roughness of relationships that are often too sanitized or dumbed down by other artists.
The two songs work as both parts of a whole and as opposites of each other. Velella takes center stage on “Even,” a song that takes place in a universe of only two people – her and the person she’s singing to. On “Light,” there’s an almost immediate reference to other people in the neighborhood, and Velella herself sounds further in the mix, in the crowd of instruments. “Even Then” feels like a evening drive on a nice summer night in the open, where “You Light Me Up” feels more like the Independence Day it describes – a little crowded and warm, but still lovely and fun. Both songs have some cracked nostalgia, but are ultimately warm and rewarding folk odes to those we love nearly unconditionally. As we approach the doldrums of the relentless summer heat in yet another collectively terrible year, we can use some solace in songs like these.