Welcome to this year’s best of new music post — and customary cold season sign of life.
Every year, I somehow commit myself to spending a few days writing up the best new recorded music I heard in the previous 12 months. I say “somehow” because each year, I wonder anew how valuable this activity is (in contrast, say, to actually taking time off). But by now it’s tradition, and not one I’m inclined to break with (yet). Blogging in the “classic” sense has long gone the way of the dodo, so this annual post is as anachronostic and “old person” an activity now as listening to albums instead of algorithmically curated AI playlists.
Also every year, I continue to be astonished by how much good new music there is. While the economics of recording and releasing music are becoming less and less favourable to most musicians, musicians themselves seem remarkably undeterred. Prior to the pandemic, the trend seemed to be that earnings from live performances could make up at least some of the shortfall. That changed in 2020, and live music still hasn’t quite returned to 2019 levels (much like, say, air travel hasn’t either). But despite all of this, recorded music continues to be alive and well, and to serve up welcome surprises nearly every week.
Each week, I make a point of sampling as many new releases as I can muster. In 2022, my imagination was particularly captivated by various types of “new jazz,” post-rock, (pop) singer-songwriters, indie folk, and various global music hybrids. Rock and hip hop continue to feel a bit ossified (and thus low yield despite all the media about them), as if they are in the process of becoming “minor” musics for now — similar to what jazz became in the 80s and 90s. Across a bigger expanse of time, I think I can see now how this happens to genres. They become “dormant” and then they awaken and return, renewed.
All of this year’s albums in a big playlist:
Here we go:
Aldous Harding / Warm Chris: Another excellent record from this delightfully odd New Zealand folk/rock singer-songwriter. I’ve written about her before. Each new record satisfyingly mines the same seam: a kind of nerdy folk-rock with sharp songwriting and crisp production. Music that challenges and pleases. It somehow manages to sound very “British,” calling to mind what happened there in the 70s when prog rock and folk met, or some of the stranger Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd material.
Anaïs Mitchell / Anaïs Mitchell: One of the very best American folk/pop singer-songwriters working today. Sometimes I think she embodies something like the “gold standard” for good songcraft (one of her previous accomplishments was to develop a Broadway musical based on one of her albums, Hadestown, a contemporary re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story). For a brief moment, I thought there was a smidge too much “musical theatre” in her writing but then I got over myself, realizing that this is simply the hallmark of the kind of songcraft that exceeds any particular genre. I also really love her voice.
Angeline Morrison / The Sorrow Songs (Folk Songs of Black British Experience): A lovely and important entry into the slow-but-growing stream of genres being re-claimed by Black people through correctives like this one. Morrison shows us that there’s a long-suppressed Black tradition in British folk. Densely and competently produced by Eliza Carthy, this is both beautiful and politically radical — and 100% worth hearing.
Aoife O’Donovan / Age of Apathy: O’Donovan originally came from folk/bluegrass but now writes immensely sophisticated and beautiful folk/pop songs that remind me of Joni Mitchell’s in the second half of the 1970s. There’s a fearless harmonic and rhythmic complexity here, coupled with thoughtful lyrics that always resonate. Statistically, this is one of my most-listened albums of 2022. (Also worth hearing is a live album that came later in the year, Live from the Hi-Fi. Unfortuantely, it sounds as if the event was somewhat sparsely attended, but the band is truly great.)
Binker Golding / Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy: Golding is one half of one of Britain’s leading “new jazz” outfits, Binker & Moses (whose music I admit I find nearly unlistenable most times). This solo album is a much calmer affair. It’s a curious “jazz rock” amalgam, offering echoes of late 1970s “fusion” but perhaps moving further from jazz’s bebop commitments and towards a grand, “wide-open skies” sort of West coast prog rock idiom. Not sure I can do it justice in the description. Try to stay with it for two tracks or so and see if you don’t get hooked (possibly despite your instincts).
Bonny Light Horseman / Rolling Golden Holy: Anaïs Mitchell’s other entry in this year’s list. Here she is partnered with two collaborators in a folk/rock/Americana supergroup of sorts. Their first album two years ago felt wonderfully organic and satisfying, and this one continues seamlessly where the last one left off. I don’t entirely know why, but Bonny Light Horseman’s sound often makes me think of The Band. Music for road trips.
Brìghde Chaimbeul, Ross Ainslie & Steven Byrnes / Las: Incredible Scottish folk music. This drones, grooves, creaks and rattles. How music once sounded and perhaps how it will sound again. Clears the mind.
Calexico / El Mirador: A band that only gets better with time. I always appreciate a good cross-cultural/cross-border musical collaboration, and Calexico here presents one of the finest. Sample “The Burro Song” and tell me this isn’t incredible.
Carly Rae Jepsen / The Loneliest Time: Currently Canada’s best pop songwriter, she just gets better with each album. This is wildly competent electropop of the finest kind. It was slightly unfortunate that it was released on the same day as Taylor Swift’s new album and so was eclipsed by that in the critical reception. But those who know, know — these are fine songs, beautifully produced. I’m particularly fond of “Western Wind,” one of the early singles, which I find deeply affecting in its electronic melancholy.
Carter McLean / Travelers: This is the album that nobody heard (and neither had I). True story: I purchased another album from Carter McLean’s website; the e-commerce feature didn’t quite work so I emailed him; he accidentally sent me this album as a direct download instead of the one I had actually bought. It was all sorted out in the end but I found myself in unplanned possession of this “extra” record. And it’s lovely! Carter McLean is a drummer and producer who works (worked?) as the principal drummer of the Lion King musical in New York. Travelers is a beautifully through-composed and exquisitely produced instrumental album. Sometimes in a jazz/jazz fusion idiom, sometimes more along the lines of modern Scandinavian (non-modal; ECM) “jazz,” and occasionally evocative of instrumental Americana, the overall impression is of a very well-rehearsed small group — although I understand that a lot of it was progressively assembled in the studio with contributions from various instrumentalists. I don’t know why it’s not on any streaming service or on Bandcamp — but I suppose I could understand that a musician with an actual income stream (from the Lion King and teaching) might opt out of streaming altogether given the poor economics of it. (Get your own copy here.)
Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul / Topical Dancer: Fun, clever and political electropop, half French and half English, with a dinstinctly international perspective and killer production.
The Comet is Coming / Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam: Madcap, energetic new British “jazz” at the precise intersection between Sun Ra and Fatboy Slim (or maybe even the Prodigy). Some of these new hybrids are so implausible that you have to hear them to believe them.
Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn / Pigments: Dawn Richard typically makes electronically inflected indie R&B and Spencer Zahn is a bassist and producer who started out in electronic music but persistently moves further in a through-composed jazz direction. I like this as a kind of advanced ambient music — unobtrusive background if required but capable of fully engaging the ear all the same. The critical consensus seemed to be that they bring out the best in each other which may well be true.
Esmerine / Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: Montreal post-rock band/orchestra releases another terrific, lovely and engaging album. If you like GY!BE or Bell Orchestre, you’ll probably like this.
Fatoumata Diawara / Maliba: Google Arts & Culture released a “documentary” of sorts about Mali and the international effort to preserve its ancient manuscripts and artifacts in light of the Mali War (Northern Mali conflict) which has now been ongoing for ten years. As part of its effort, it seems that Google commissioned a mini album from Fatoumata Diawara, one of Mali’s premier singer-songwriters whose music is always incredible. Terrific African pop with a melancholy “desert blues” lilt.
FKA twigs / Caprisongs: New album from the ever-amazing FKA twigs. The critical consensus was that this is her “party album.” It certainly downplays the Kate Bush influences and the deeply sad future R&B from before and embraces various dance tropes but always puts her own unique spin on them.
Heilung / Drif: This “dark folk” band is a Scandinavian/German collaboration. Their work claims to explore, perhaps “ethno-historically” (or ethno-musicologically?), various ancient musics. Initially, their work seemed mostly interested in Northern European culture but here it expands in other geographic directions. The unique thing is that this is anything but academic: working on the (presumably correct) assumption that in the absence of any written or oral record of ancient musical performance traditions “anything goes,” Heilung perform ritualistic stage shows that focus on guttural singing and various ancient intruments, thus creating their own performance tradition. They’ve been very well-received in metal circles but really deserve a much wider audience.
Laufey / Everything I Know About Love: Laufey Jónsdóttir is an Icelandic singer-songwriter who writes delightfully old-fashioned jazz/pop songs and performs them with perfect pitch and a self-assurance well beyond her young years. Part of the appeal here is that these songs sound like they’re from another era but the perceptive lyrics are definitely of the moment. It’s shockingly pleasant but never even skirts close to “cheesy” territory. The fun challenge is to figure out how it manages to do that.
Luna Li / Duality: Hannah Bussiere Kim is a fine new singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (harp! guitar! violin!) from Toronto who makes psychedelic bedroom pop that references the 90s and the 60s in equal measure. It’s woozy and laid back and delightful but the lightness belies a great deal of thoughtfulness, complexity and depth of musical imagination. Equally perfect on a really hot summer afternoon and during a cold-season dinner party when the fireplace is going (but by no means background music). On very high rotation in my house this year.
Makaya McCraven / In These Times: More “new jazz,” this time from the US. McCraven is a jazz drummer and producer, the kind whose work flows seamlessly between instrumental prowess and electronic production, erasing any audible boundaries between the two. I have liked some of his previous work, but this album is spectacular. It sounds like a fully-developed vision of “the future of jazz,” every aspect finely tuned and plausible though of course not inevitable at all. What’s most exciting about all these nontraditional experiments in “new jazz” is that they each propose different answers to the question about where jazz is going, and in so-doing have once again made it into a vital and diverse genre in only a few short years. — I can’t really describe this, but you absolutely ought to hear it.
Michaela Anne / Oh To Be That Free: Michaela Anne is a country singer-songwriter on the lighter side of “alt country.” Previous album Desert Dove had a stately, widescreen sound, equal parts Roy Orbison and old Mavericks, with perceptive songs sung in a clear, bell-like soprano. Oh To Be That Free, her new record, is a departure of sorts that might make some listeners uncomfortable. I know it did me. The sound, though still directionally similar, is smaller and more compact. But the great departure here is the lyrics. This is one of the most disarmingly honest, sincere albums I’ve heard in a while. Exploring significant life changes (human relationships, family, the pandemic, bringing a child into the world…), these songs sometimes sound as if you’ve inadvertently stumbled into someone else’s therapy session. Ordinarily, I don’t imagine I would have connected with this, but somehow it hooked me. There is a great deal of bravery in these songs: Michaela Anne lays bare her struggles, anxieties, dreams and triumphs for all of us to see. In an age of routine cynicism, this isn’t what songwriters are supposed to do, and when they do our typical reaction might be to be vaguely embarassed. What if we resisted that urge?
Modern Nature / Island of Noise: A perfect album for all ten of us who loved the last three Talk Talk albums. Modern Nature is a British folk/rock/jazz band that patiently mines the same quiet seam Mark Hollis did. If you need further reference points, imagine taking a bit of Radiohead, a bit of jazz, a bit of Nick Drake, and a British pastoral landscape and mixing them all together.
Nilüfer Yanya / Painless: Such a great album, this! Every so often, someone comes along who manages to forge a unique sound that’s also entirely of the moment. Nilüfer Yanya is a British singer-songwriter whose music used to be a kind of guitar rock oriented indie pop. On this new record, the sound signature starts to lean more towards math rock (angular, layered but not necessarily distorted guitars) and folk-tronica, and the songs have become entirely more memorable. Her voice is both unusual and entirely engrossing: deep, soft and authoritative, her register alone calms the soul. This album has racked up one of the highest play counts in my rotation this year.
Nneka / Love Supreme: Nneka is a Nigerian-German reggae and R&B singer. On this new record, her voice is framed by increasingly powerful production that expertly flits around contemporary dub, drum & bass, R&B and afrobeats. This has a kind of funky minimalism that suggests “dancefloor” more than “radio,” but it’s calm and elegant and very cool.
Oren Ambarchi / Ghosted and Shebang: Two albums in one year from Oren Ambarchi, an Australian multi-instrumentalist/electronic producer whose main MO is collaborative, often live experimental music-making. While quite different in sound signature, these two albums clearly share a common DNA: they are explorations of slow-building polyrhythms over relatively long expanses of time. Ghosted focuses more on acoustic instruments while Shebang‘s sound signature is more electronic, although I’d have to say that the underlying compositional infrastructure remains delightfully opaque (both records may well be electronically assembled in similar ways). It’s incredibly engaging and interesting music, the kind that can be intensely listened to and explored. At the same time, you can turn it down a bit and it frames a room tastefully, like an intriguing painting or a really plush rug.
Rachika Nayar / Heaven Come Crashing: I like this very much. There are more and more of these solo electronic auteurs making really interesting, arresting music using a blend of acoustic and electronic instruments. Rachika Nayar, based in Brooklyn, is a guitarist whose highly processed playing often becomes functionally indistinguishable from ambient electronic music. This sometimes takes a turn into a kind of blissful maximalism, intense in its fullness but not unpleasantly so.
Sarathy Korwar / Kalak: By now, the UK has a 30+ year history of acting as a “melting pot” of sorts for various musics from its former colonies in Asia with “Western” pop. While this album by Sarathy Korwar (produced by Photay) features a number of key players from London’s “new jazz” scene and has therefore primarily been discussed in that light, I think of it more in continuity with the original “Asian underground” (e.g. Talvin Singh’s work in the late 90s). I hadn’t necessarily found much to enjoy on Korwar’s previous releases, but this album offers both more electronic sounds and a welcome tenderness, dialing back the anti-colonial onslaught and guest rappers, and introducing a dynamic range that seemed to be lacking from e.g. the previous album.
Shabaka / Afrikan Culture: Appearing solo (“as leader”) for the first time, Shabaka Hutchings, usually associated with acts like Sons of Kemet, the Comet is Coming and Shabaka and the Ancestors, explores a much slower and lovelier spiritual jazz than usual. I’m very charmed by the flutes and bells whose sonorities are amply explored in addition to his usual saxophone. It’s short at 28 minutes but thoroughly thrilling.
Silvana Estrada / Marchita: A young, jazz-trained Mexican singer-songwriter of incredible power and expressiveness. This album is a singular accomplishment of minimalism: the instrumental backings are perfectly restrained (without disappearing into nothingness), framing her emotional reflections about lost love. The songs are based in various folk traditions from across Latin America. I don’t speak Spanish so have to look up translations, but it really doesn’t matter — you can feel this music to comprehend it, and I imagine you don’t lose all that much.
Spoon / Lucifer on the Sofa and Lucifer on the Moon: You’ll have noticed there isn’t much “rock” on this list, at least in the classic sense. My general sense, supported again and again by each year’s yield, is that the genre remains largely dormant for the time being. I mean, things are being released, sure — but they’re mostly derivative and, as such, feel increasingly niche. I’m not sure I had imagined a time in my life where “rock” as a genre would be seeking to “cross over” into the mainstream, but here we are. —— Spoon remains one of the genre’s most vital bands, spectacular in its sonics, musicianship and songwriting. There hasn’t been a Spoon album I haven’t enjoyed over the years, and this year’s is no exception. In fact, it comes in two versions: Sofa is the “original” and Moon is a dub version created by Adrian Sherwood. I can’t quite decide which one I like better. The rock version is both thunderous and closely controlled, the perfect framing for Britt Daniel’s terse, nervous, sometimes anxious lyrics (the texture in his voice sometimes makes him sound like John Lennon). The dub version re-contextualizes the songs completely, evoking sonic memories of the Clash (or, with some imagination, U2 circa Achtung Baby which — in this thought experiment — becomes re-cast as a kind of dub album in its own right). Both versions are satisfying listens and give each other added context and dimension.
Stick in the Wheel / Endurance Soundly Caged (EP): God, how I love this band. The punkest and most experimental of English “folk” acts, it almost doesn’t matter what weird and wonderful sonic permutations they are exploring (drone folk, folk punk, prog rock folk, ambient folktronica…), they are always worth hearing. This short effort here is once again a full band record (other recent excursions were more on the electronic side, possibly due to the pandemic), and the rollicking circular math-rock rhythms are back, framing Nicola Kearey’s fantastic voice. Deserving of far more attention than they are getting.
Szun Waves / Earth Patterns: I hadn’t previously heard of this “experimental jazz trio” from London. What I’ve discovered is that I really like this — it’s a dense, spiritual musical journey that both makes sense in the context of all the other “new jazz” I’ve discussed on this list and stands somewhat apart from it. It’ll come up as part of a playlist and I’ll immediately be drawn to it. I’ve come to think of it as a gentler but no less committed version of the Comet is Coming’s album (see above). If the Comet is Coming celebrates the 90s big beat “rave culture” moment, Szun Waves conjures up the more ecstatic forms of morning-after sunrise electronica.
Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder / Get On Board — The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee: Having worked together at the beginnings of their respective careers (before fame), Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder reunite as seasoned veterans with their own take on the songs of these classic blues composer/performers. The result is loose and raw and reminds us that there really are no genre distinctions between blues, folk and country. This feels vital and political.
Telenova / Stained Glass Love (EP): On one hand, this is pure nostalgia for a time in the mid-to-late 90s when pop and electronica merged in a kind of languid, laid back, radio-friendly hybrid (Saint Etienne, Moloko, Everything But the Girl’s foray into house music, and so on). On the other, this Melbourne based outfit writes and performs songs that are head and shoulders above and more satisfying than most of the others currently stoking 90s nostalgia. Interested to see what comes next.
Tom Skinner / Voices of Bishara: British jazz drummer, formerly of Sons of Kemet, currently in The Smile, a “supergroup” with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. This is his first solo outing. I couldn’t warm to The Smile’s debut effort (I have an allergy of sorts to Thom Yorke’s depressive subject matter and whiny voice) but I do like this album quite a bit. I particularly enjoy the interplay between through-composed “spiritual” jazz and afrobeat. Skinner might be a worthy sonic heir to Tony Allen.
Also worth hearing:
- Beabadoobee / Beatopia
- Big Thief / Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
- Dubokaj Feat. Lee “Scratch” Perry / Daydreamflix
- Fern Maddie / Ghost Story
- In the Forest / These Four Walls
- JD Allen / Americana Vol. 2
- Kendrick Lamar / Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
- North Mississippi Allstars / Set Sail
- Nyamekye Junction / Dasein (EP)
- Orville Peck / Bronco
- Pierre Kwenders / José Louis and the Paradox of Love
- Rosalía / Motomami
- Smino / Luv 4 Rent
- Suki Waterhouse / I Can’t Let Go
- Théotime Langlois de Swarte & Les Ombres / Vivaldi, Leclair & Locatelli Violin Concertos
- Weyes Blood / And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow