1. Bonny Light Horseman — Rolling Golden Holy (37d03d)
The indie rock super group Bonny Light Horseman features Eric Johnson (Fruit Bats), Anais Mitchell (Hadestown) and Josh Kaufman (The National), and manages to be much more than the lofty sum of its pieces. This is an album of harmonizing, strumming, and daydreaming that transcends time and place, reminiscent of the music that once drifted from the hills of Laurel Canyon. Their near perfect second album is one of the best Americana albums in quite a while — riding a steady wave of understated magic.
On one of the best songs of the decade, the opening track “Exile,” Eric Johnson sings: “Love, love love, / to lie with you again / beating of my heart / the winging of a dove.” The song rolls along so lightly it almost sounds like the perfect weather it is meant to approximate. There is always one record every year that gets immediately under my skin and just stays there, and this year it was Rolling Golden Holy.
2. The Smile — A Light For Attracting Attention (XL)
I could probably listen to Thom Yorke meditate silently if he released that album, but I’d rather he sing me into a meditative state. Side projects are often well intended afterthoughts, but this is more of a stripped down Radiohead sound with guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and drummer Tom Skinner with Nigel Godrich producing. The album is a souring, seething adventure into the great unknown filled with trademark moodiness and melancholy.
On the more serene tracks like “Skirting on the Surface”, Yorke sings: “Dull eyes, trying to pull you through the ice / Being drawn to the ledge / When we realize that we are broke and nothing mends / We can drop under the surface.” Heady stuff no doubt, but then again, life isn’t always, if ever, rainbows and waterfalls. Life is that amalgam of all that is good, and everything else that isn’t, wrapped up in a song that allows you to escape for at least a moment when the spirit calls.
3. Beth Orton — Weather Alive (Warp)
Beth Orton’s music has always been among the most ethereal, lilting and emotionally transportive of the folktronica genre that she helped popularize. Nearly two decades after her monumental debut “Trailer Park” and five years since her last album, we get the sublime and self-produced “Weather Alive.” It is a moody meditation on the passing of time, the longed-for moments of younger years, and other such middle-aged reflections. Her voice is still a perfectly maintained, silky, lightly graveled road that sounds just like it did in the beginning. The jazzy, orchestral, electronic accompaniments are rich but not overdone, crafting that subtle groove she has always maintained despite the superficial mellowness.
There are only eight songs here, but like a great jazz record they are long meandering pieces that seem to just travel until they gently land in some faraway place. On “Forever Young” there is that trademark hypnotic lyrical repetition and on the closest thing we have to a “single”, she croons majestically about “Friday Night” — as much a state of mind as it is a time and place. There is nothing more comfortable than the cozy-sweater-warmth of this incredible album.
4. This is a Photograph — Kevin Morby (Dead Oceans)
Kevin Morby is the closest thing we have to a modern day Bob Dylan. He looks like an olde-timey carnival troubadour, travels with an incredibly accomplished band, writes songs that seem out of place today and like Dylan before him transforms his midwestern upbringing into that endless yearning to be traveling across our great country. Inspired by his girlfriend Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield, the two live and breathe both music as art and life across this evolving cannon of Americana.
Like many of the best songs on this album, “A Random Act of Kindness” starts innocently enough then explodes into a cacophony of strings and vocals: “Lift me up by my hand / Lift me up if you can / Lift me up, be my friend / Through a random act of kindness.” So much of the music that I loved this year was crafted by artists so committed to art that despite the challenges that exist for musicians to make a decent living today. They are driven by something so deep within them and Kevin Morby is at the top of this class.
5. Nilufer Yanya — PAINLESS (ATO)
The breathy and beautiful British singer and bandleader Nilufer Yanya is that rare artist who has taken the history of indie music and boiled it into a melodic soup that could have been released at any point in the past forty-years. Her half Irish-Barbadian half Turkish childhood home was filled with Turkish and classical music that somehow translated to her unique sensibility. Her music is at times both mellow and jittery, creating a kind of sonic intensity that covers an entire spectrum of emotions and attitudes.
“PAINLESS” is a storybook about relationships and experiencing the world with eyes wide open. There is quite a bit of pain here, but also spare moments of light at the end of tunnels. On “Midnight Sun” she opens with this honest admission: “I remember everything / So I can’t take back anything / Unless that’s how I’m meant to feel / Find myself a better deal.” But more than anything it is her gorgeous husky voice that carries the weight of the words, perhaps a bit of melodramatic youth, but wise enough to make us fall right in.
6. Sharon Van Etten — We’ve Been Going about This All Wrong (Merge)
In the beginning a younger more recently wounded Sharon Van Etten made some of the sparsest, darkest and most vulnerable acoustic albums in some time. Many albums, collaborations, movie scores, and acting roles later, she is still the queen of darkness. This time around the sonic intensity and slow boiling emotion is elevated to a whole new level. This is a consistently intense piece of work. It’s more Nick Cave and Thom Yorke than the playful pop of “Seventeen” that helped vault her into the cult stratosphere.
Songs like “Born” and “Headspace” take their sweet time before allowing her vocals to conduct her band towards a powerful wall of sound that transports you to some other place entirely. This isn’t rainbows and kittens, but more like that place between lightness and darkness. Like Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, and PJ Harvey before her, Sharon Van Etten is not just an artist’s artist but also one who is in it for the long haul. She appears unwavering in her orientation towards evolution, and less interested in making the accessible pop music that is well within her reach.
7. Alex G — God Save the Animals (Domino)
Alex G is a total enigma. He covers an incredible amount of ground with every album he makes. This time around he opens with the haunting “After All” with childlike vocals that sound stolen from “The Wall” and then morphs into “Runner” which sounds like a hip and modern version of “Runaway Train” which was released long before he would have been old enough to notice.
The world of “God Save The Animals” is a romp through different moods and soundscapes from melodic Americana balladry to trippy distortion and back again to his trademark prog rock. In an age filled with hip-hop, EDM and over produced pop, the broad bedroom lo-fi rock of Alex G is a refreshing and much needed throwback to the golden age of 90’s indie.
8. Artic Monkeys — The Car (Domino)
Artic Monkeys triumphant return to music is one of the most unexpected and darkly beautiful lounge records in decades. Reminiscent of Alex Turner’s side project The Return of the Shadow Puppets, this is a highly produced romantic postcard, filled with a lush orchestra of strings, piano and keys that sound at times like the sultry step-child of Nick Cave and Roxy Music.
For those who prefer the post punk of the band’s earlier records, this is not the record you were looking forward to. “The Car” is a goth leaning journey down some velvet curtained, run down English mansion that spills texture and warmth across the floor like a Kubrick film. On “Big Ideas” the band sings “I had had big ideas / the band was so excited / the kind you’d rather not share over the phone,” cascading over a waterfall of strings. This is a minor masterpiece cut from an ancient cloth that I am so glad to re-explore.
9. Broken Bells — Into the Blue (Awal Recordings)
I had all but given up hoping for Danger Mouse and the Shin’s James Mercer to reunite on another Broken Bells album. Their first, and perfect 2010 debut album was a dreamy electronicized amalgam of Danger Mouse’s slick production and Mercer’s ageless vocals. This time out the ingredients are still the same, and we get nine songs draped in a sound caught in a surreal netherworld in between Burt Bacharach on “Love on the Run” and the retro stylings of “Saturdays.”
It is rare that even the most long-lived band can sit down and write and compose songs as tight and broad reaching as Broken Bells have on “Into the Blue.” This is the ultimate tribute to the strength of Mercer as a songwriter and Danger Mouse as an arranger and producer. The music here is pure poetry from each note to each lyric. On “Forgotten Boy” Mercer croons: “Water flows, wheels will turn / Changing all from the stem to the stern / You will learn, how to bend /Trust in time you’ll be jilted again.” Eventually all our bells will break, but you just pick yourself up and jump on the groove.
10. Big Thief — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (4AD)
Big Thief is one of the most prolific bands making music today. They have released five albums in seven years, culminating with this sprawling twenty-song double album. Recorded in four distinct locations (Topanga Canyon, Upstate NY, Tucson and the Rockies) this is a concept album that layers mood on top of geography, held together with their magical and rustic storytelling.
The quartet is led by the beautifully warbling vocals of Adrienne Lenker, who manages to create a kind of warm beauty from the tiniest of observations. On “Simulation Swarm” she sings “Once again, empty horses / Gallop through the violet door / Follow red, crooked courses / Shadows on the moonlit floor.” There is a special kind of imperfect fragility and earthiness that Big Thief manages so effortlessly, like watching the clouds move slowly across a blue bird sky.
11. Spoon — Lucifer On The Sofa (Matador)
“Lucifer” is the tenth album in almost 30 years from the iconic Austin band. It begins with a cover of the of the Smog classic “Held,” exploding from the initial calm into a serious psychedelic jam as if to say, “listen to the whole the album.” Spoon is a stalwart in an age where rock has lost its place at the leading edge of the cannon of American music.
Lead by the vocals of Britt Daniels and percussion from Jim Eno, the band’s only remaining founders, their music has always just kind of oozed with an unassuming cool. This time out there is a kind of R&B swagger heard most directly on tunes like “The Devil and Mister Jones.” There are also the gentler moments of sublime beauty on tracks like “My Babe” and “Astral Jacket” which demand nothing more than an open heart and soul.
12. Sudan Archives — Natural Brown Prom Queen (Stones Throw Records)
Cincy born, LA transplant, Brittney Parks is a genre bending performer who blends African rhythms with electronic beats and hip-hop, but all bound up with an indie sensibility. Like a modern day Santigold, twisting and contorting elements of the familiar with the kind of space aged weirdness that Kid Cudi brought to rap music. Acting as a one woman band, producing, writing and playing most instruments, she has given us eighteen songs each a very distant relative to each other.
Lyrically she covers quite a bit of ground from the serious social commentary reminiscent of Nina Simone with lyrics like: “Sometimes I think that if I was light-skinned / Then I would get into all the parties / Win all the Grammys, make the boys happy.” This is a journey into the past and the future, navigated by an artist intent on making art not money.
13. Arcade Fire– WE (Arcade Fire Music)
Rock music has given way to dance, pop, and hip-hop in a profound way over the past decade. Festival headliners are more often DJ’s, MCs and Divas than they are rock icons of the past. Arcade Fire, along with Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem and Band of Horses used to be staples galvanizing crowds with anthemic rock ballads. After two incredible records, Arcade Fire seemed to have lost their plot a bit like U2 in decades past. But they are back, redeemed in every way with “WE.”
These ten songs, recorded after a five-year hiatus are both modern and fresh, while maintaining the kind of magic they showered us with on “Funeral” years ago. On tunes like ‘Rabbit Hole” you hear the synthesizers and percussion that drew people in from the very beginning “rabbit hole, plastic soul,” Win Butler sings with the kind of cynicism that drew us into the world of “Suburbs a decade ago. On “Lighting 1 & 2” we get that kind of new wave Springsteen anthem that separated them from the rest of the pack. “WE” is another minor masterpiece in a time when we need it the most, during a time when everything seems to be falling apart.
14. Black Road, New Country — Ants From Up There (Ninja Tune)
This sprawling seven-piece UK ensemble has said, in no uncertain terms, that Arcade Fire was/is their North star. The album is awash in strings and brass, guitars, intentional cacophony and the mesmerizing talk-singing of Isaac Wood who channels the earnest and soul scraping emotion of Connor Oberst.
On the anthemically building “Concorde,” which alludes the classic supersonic jet, we hear about a love so deep that “And You, Like Concorde / I came, a gentle hill racer / I was breathless / Up on every mountain / Just look for your light.” This album isn’t upbeat in any traditional way, but it somehow lifts you from the monotony of your life and transports you somewhere that you didn’t even know you should visit.
A bunch of other great stuff …
15. Toro Y Moi — MAHAL (Dead Oceans) Chaz Budnick (AKA Toro Y Moi) is one of the most versatile, and evolving artists playing today. On his first album for Dead Oceans, he has made their finest work to date. It is a groovy retro effort that bounces between moody electronic moments and infectious funk of tunes like “The Postman” and “The Loop.” This is a tightly loose affair, with Budnick channeling 70’s funk with silky smooth modern production.
16. Dry Cleaning — Stumpwork (4AD) Florence Shaw doesn’t so much sing as talk to us in syncopated bursts with vaguely new wave strumming, a kind of sexy calm, like reading you a story at the library, except that the library is a hipster lounge somewhere in SoHo.
17. Drugdealer — Hiding in Plain Sight (Mexican Summer) Michael Collins (AKA Drugdealer) is the beautiful lovechild of Elvis Costello and Steely Dan, a retro highly produced mellow pop journey into something that sounds so distinctly from another time and place but welcome in times like these.
19. Alvvays — Blue Rev (Polyvinyl) Canadian indie band Alvvays has been making infectious guitar driven pop for a decade now, but this time out they seem suddenly more fully formed and bigger than the lower production earlier efforts. This is an easy record to love, filled with relentless optimism.
20. Yard Act — The Overload (Island) The Leeds base Yard Act sound like a band from London in the 70’s and 80’s, blending post-punk with a Fall-style “talk-sing” with an angular dance rock that seems vaguely similar to The Rapture in their heyday.
21. Wet Leg — Wet Leg (Domino) This Isle of Wight based duo shot out of the hype cannon after the flukish success of their infectious first tune “Chaise Lounge.” Followed by a few more impossibly catchy tracks the band seems poised to .. well .. be an actual band. It sure can happen fast these days.
22. Weyes Blood — And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow (Sub Pop) Natalie Merling, is a modern-day Carole King, Harry Nilsson and every other ethereal balladeer of any consequences we have ever known and loved. She is a remnant of a bygone age, in a time obsessed with the future that doesn’t even look that great.
23. !!! — Let It Be (WARP) Over 25 years into its eclectic romp through a beautiful mélange of house beats and psychedelia, the Sacto band has released one of the weirdest and broadest albums of the year, featuring a kooky cover of REM’s “Man on the Moon.”
24. The Delines — The Sea Drift (El Cortez Records) The countrified balladry of Amy Boone and company is some of the most emotive and patient of the year. Reminiscent of some older school favs like American Music Club, they bathe us in sea of brass, like a slow churning train meandering its way across the country just taking it all in as if it’s the last time.
25. Daniel Rossen — You Belong There (Warp) Rossen is one of the many distinctive voices of Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear. Like his other band this is a baroque celebration of Brian Wilson inspired bedroom studio pop. “You Belong There” is unconventional in every way, filled with strings, strange guitar tunings, and an orchestra of eerie sounds but a journey to place you’ve never been before.
To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest 2022 click here: