A lot of great music this year; most of my favorites are styles that are out-of-fashion right now, but I’m just glad there’s artists out there still producing everything from old school hip-hop to guitar-based, dream-pop. My favorites, in no particular order:
Spoon – Lucifer On The Sofa – Twenty five years and ten albums into their storied indie rock career, the Austin band release one of their very finest albums. Spoon’s spare, angular style is quite distinctive, but songwriter Britt Daniel carefully crafts a variety of songs to ensure the whole album sounds fresh and timeless. Among the ten tracks are a passionate cover of a Daniel favorite (“Held”, originally by fellow Austin band Smog), swaggering hard rock (“The Hardest Cut”), vintage R&B grooves (“The Devil & Mister Jones”), and yearning anthems (“Wild”). The band judiciously deploys piano, horns, and other instruments to flesh out the sound without overwhelming the basic guitar/bass/drums foundation. Spoon have been so consistent over the years, even longtime fans disagree about which albums are their best. But to me, this is one of their top three ever, which is high praise, considering they’ve never made a bad album.
The Weeknd – Dawn FM – A concept album about a radio station guiding you into the afterlife finds Abel Tesfaye exploring doomed romance, addiction, mortality, death and rebirth. In between interludes from Jim Carrey and Quincy Jones is slotted some of his best music. The skittering synth/drum effects on “Gasoline”, the burbling disco thump of “Take My Breath”, and the processed guitar/synth rhythms that power “Sacrifice” are virtuoso touches that help turn these into some of his very best songs. Towards the end of the album, the songs become a little less innovative, but no less engaging. He’s at the top of his game, and pop music is better for it.
Thus Love – Memorial – If you are a fan of bands like The Chameleons, Bauhaus, The Church, Joy Division, Psychedelic Furs, and Echo & The Bunnymen, I highly recommend you check out the debut album from this Vermont-based, queer-punk band. One listen and it’s easy to see why their original fanbase was “composed of post-punk dads”. They’ve nailed the prominent bass lines, swirling guitars, and brooding vocals of the era dead-on. All of the songs are brimming with attitude and atmosphere, but “In Tandem” and “Inamorato” jumped out to me immediately as songs that could stand with the classics of the genre. The rest of the album is also pretty fantastic, ranging from the passionate “Pith and Point” to the poppier “Friend”. An unexpected gem.
Drug Church – Hygiene – Hardcore punk laced with the heaviest of 90s alternative rock to create a very potent blend indeed. Frontman Patrick Kindlon’s bellow is surprisingly tuneful at times and he writes some incisive lyrics about the relationships between art, artist, and capitalism. The thundering music and riffs rise above the usual hardcore thrash to get lodged in the back of your brain. And when they ease off the throttle a bit, like on “Detective Lieutenant” or “Premium Offer”, their melodic side shines. It all rushes by in well under a half hour. In the the anthemic closer, “Athlete On Bench”, Kindlon sings “I’m living between shrinking margins”; he’s talking about the difficulties of making a living as a full-time member of a punk band, but the chorus seems almost universal.
Phoenix – Alpha Zulu – Five years on from their last album, Phoenix rise again with another album of their patented, fizzy, synth-rock. The title track is irresistible pop, Ezra Koenig (formerly of Vampire Weekend) shows up to spark “Tonight”, and “Winter Solstice” is a thoughtful ballad. There’s a loose concept about the difficulties of re-connecting in a post-pandemic world, but the album is mostly carried by the earworm melodies and muscular rhythms. Phoenix sound like they are having fun, and deliver an easy pleasure.
Alvvays – Blue Rev – This album is packed with melodic indie-pop nuggets coated with candied shoegaze guitars. I hadn’t heard any previous music from Alvvays, but this one caught my ear right away. Molly Rankin’s songs are astute character studies and carefully observed slices-of-life about growing up, relationships, and life-changing decisions. Guitarist Alec O’Hanley has a classic pop sense, and a great feel for when to dial up the guitar fuzz and when to let the songs breathe. It’s hard to choose favorites when every song is so consistently good. For me, anyway, this one overloaded the pleasure centers.
Danger Mouse & Black Thought – Cheat Codes – The lead MC for The Roots, Black Thought (a.k.a. Tariq Trotter), is a well-respected elder statesman and has an enviable steady gig, as part of the house band for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. But with the Roots not recording much any more, he has clearly been seeking a creative outlet. The idea of a solo album with Danger Mouse had been gestating for several years. It was during the pandemic that the rapper and producer were able to finalize the tracks that became Cheat Codes. It’s a fantastic pairing. Danger Mouse isn’t a typical producer. His tracks are built on a bedrock of deep-cut soul music, but layered with unexpected instrumental flourishes and eerie tone clusters. They provide an ideal backdrop for Black Thought’s dense, fiercely intelligent lyricism. The album has some solid guest appearances including Run The Jewels and the late MF Doom (who’ll always be Zev Love X from KMD to this old head), but Black Thought shines on every cut. It’s the kind of album that renews your faith in the art of hip-hop.
Beach House –Once Twice Melody – Producing a consistent, quality, double album totaling nearly 85 minutes of music is a difficult and impressive undertaking. And the dream-pop duo largely succeed. The bumper crop of songs show off their knack for languid melodies and add a few new production tricks to their repertoire. Among my favorites are the gently chugging “Superstar”, the twinkling “New Romance”, and the M83-esque “Finale”. Beach House have a very specific sound, and it’s a long album to sit through all at once. But taken as four “chapters”, as the band suggest, it’s really quite amazing.
Gang Of Youths –angel in realtime. – The Australian alternative band reach new heights on their 3rd album. Their lead singer and songwriter, David Le’aupepe, wrote most of the songs after his father’s death. On his deathbed, his father provided bewildering revelations about a family he had left behind in the islands of the South Pacific. Many of the songs are about dealing with his father’s passing, trying to understand his father’s motivations, re-discovering his Pasifika roots, and meeting his half-brothers. The biggest standouts on the album are “The Angel Of 8th Ave.” about his wife’s support during his father’s illness and “In The Wake Of Your Leave” about coping with the loss. He channels the emotion into open, uplifting, melodic rock tracks with vulnerable, relatable lyrics, like 1980s U2. “Unison” is a moving number about re-discovering his heritage, “Tend The Garden” is a groove-oriented track attempting to make sense of his father’s past. Occasionally, Le’aupepe is just too earnest, such as on “Brothers” where he basically speak-sings a diary entry. Trimming that and a couple of other weaker tracks would have made the album stronger (at 67 minutes it’s definitely too long), but the best songs are top-notch, and overall this is a breakthrough album for the band.
The Speedways –Talk Of The Town – If you enjoy 70s/80s power-pop (i.e. Nerves, Shoes, 20/20, Knack, Plimsouls) or just enjoy traditional melodic guitar rock, I highly recommend you check out UK band The Speedways. Singer and primary songwriter Matt Julian writes some killer hooks, Mauro Venegas adds guitar sparks, and the rhythm section provides a propulsive backbeat. Their latest album has plenty of great tunes. “Dead From The Heart Down” opens things with a bang, I love the little guitar tone at the end that sounds like a heart monitor flat-lining. “Shoulda Known” and the title track have sticky melodies and rock hard. “A Drop In The Ocean” is an affecting mid-tempo number. Venegas adds three solid songs as well. The Speedways have previously released two equally consistent albums, “Just Another Regular Summer” and “Radio Sounds” which are worth tracking down if you enjoy their latest. I only hope they cross the pond for a US tour at some point — I would love to see them live.
Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – Cold As Weiss
The Creachies – Existential Postmodern Powerpop For Cartoons
Arcade Fire – We
Astragal – Pure Cashmere
Lizzo – Special
Young Guv – Guv III & IV
Uni Boys – Do It All Next Week
2nd Grade – Easy Listening
Cut City – Tape Days
The Bobby Lees – Bellevue
The Cure – Wish (Deluxe)
Guns & Roses – Use Your Illusion I/II (Deluxe)
Aerosmith – 1971: The Road Starts Hear
The Libertines – Up The Bracket (Deluxe)