Three weeks into January and I’m only just rounding off last year with my second ‘Best Of’ list. 2022 was absolutely stacked with phenomenal albums and it took me a long time to narrow down my favourites.
Reading other year-end lists – the ones which were actually out on time – I always see the same albums cropping up again and again. Often it’s well-deserved acclaim; some of those albums are on my list too. But because major publications often assemble their lists based on the votes of a team of writers, it tends to flush out the albums that are less well-known or have a less broad appeal.
I will always prefer reading lists curated by individuals, where you can find the lesser-known titles and the more controversial takes. There’s more character to a list like this, even if it is, inevitably, very biased. I want my picks to be diverse, of course, but I also want to celebrate the genres and artists that are new-found loves of mine. I want to document 2022 not just as a year in cultural history, but also a year in my life, when this was the music I was listening too, and this was how I felt about it. And I want to share that with others.
So I hope you find something new on this list, as well as seeing a favourite album or two crop up. Let me know what your albums of the year are, and all the best for 2023!
10. Leave the Light On – Pillow Queens
It’s hard to know just what the secret ingredient is that Dublin’s Pillow Queens put into their music to transform it from standard indie rock fare into something with far more heart and soul. Post-punk is undergoing a resurgence and jagged guitar lines and sardonic male Sprechgesang are everywhere. The quartet of women who make up Pillow Queens, however, offer something different: a sensitivity and vulnerability that never diminishes the grungy, unpolished edge of killer tracks like ‘No Good Woman’ and ‘Be by Your Side’.
9. Forward Thinker – Nimbus Sextet
A vibrant mishmash of jazz, funk, and dance, Forward Thinker by Scottish group Nimbus Sextet pulses with vitality, each wild, rhapsodic horn solo or frantic keyboard improvisation a shot of pure energy. We open with a lush neo-soul number led by vocalist Charlotte de Graaf, and conclude with ‘To the Light’s’ bombastic big-band energy and elastic, Stevie Wonder-style Clavinet riffs.
8. angel in realtime. – Gang of Youths
From the sparkling, spritzing introduction to ‘you in everything’ to the filmic, orchestral closer ‘goal of the century’, angel in realtime., the fourth record by Sydney 5-piece Gang of Youths, is absolutely immaculate. Their clean, sharp and richly textured rock is arranged, performed, mixed and produced to perfection, bringing out details like the gospel choir on ‘in the wake of your leave’ and ‘the man himself’, the ethereal flute on ‘the kingdom is within you’ and the soft saxophone of ‘tend the garden’. But all this gorgeous colour and texture would amount to very little without the passionate vitality of David Le’aupepe’s powerful, expressive melodies.
7. Forest Floor – Fergus McCreadie
It’s been a phenomenal year for Scottish jazz, this being the second of three entries on this list to fall under the category. The Mercury-nominated Forest Floor, however, could hardly be more different from Nimbus Sextet’s project, its jazz influences manifesting not in ecstatic saxophone solos and winding synth grooves but in McCreadie’s fluid, improvisational and richly harmonic take on Scottish traditional music. Part of a growing movement expanding the scope of Celtic folk with the limitless spontaneity of jazz, McCreadie lets his piano run away with itself as it trips and tumbles, dives and leaps, soars and splashes over these eight rapturous tracks.
6. Renaissance – Beyoncé
In 2016, Beyoncé became more than a pop superstar. Her sixth studio album Lemonade was a cultural milestone, a masterfully crafted narrative, exploring political struggle through a deeply personal lens, and infusing the sounds of countless musical movements, past and present. Renaissance is not that. Queen Bey’s first solo album in six years is dedicated to dance, house and disco. It’s an intricately detailed, and seamlessly sequenced set of songs but not one with anything all that ground-breaking to say.
But Lemonade also highlighted something else about Beyoncé: her deft command of intertextuality. Like its predecessor, Renaissance is packed with thoughtfully placed samples, interpolations and references. From the witty nod to Right Said Fred on the joyful, hook-laden explosion of self-confidence that is ‘Alien Superstar’, to the lush, expansive Donna Summer tribute, ‘Summer Renaissance’, the record celebrates and builds upon the passionate work of its forerunners. And it wouldn’t surprise me if dance music enjoys its own renaissance in 2023 thanks to Beyoncé.
Listen on Tidal.
5. Fossora – Björk
Björk’s much-anticipated tenth studio album was met with mixed responses. At a glance, the graceful, midnight sweep of ‘Ancestress’, the rich spiritual harmonies of ‘Sorrowful Soil’ and the boisterous percussive attack of ‘Atopos’ don’t seem to belong on the same album. Unusually for the Icelandic musician, there are tracks on Fossora that could easily slot into another of her more clearly defined projects. But connection across boundaries is exactly what the record is about. Plunging deep into the soil, Björk traces out the underground webs linking whole ecosystems together, and simultaneously tells of the intergenerational bonds that tie families together through history. Both crudely earthy and transcendentally philosophical, Fossora is the subterranean mushroom-obsessed opus we should all be paying more attention to.
Read my full review here.
4. Classic Objects – Jenny Hval
‘I could open my mouth,’ claims Jenny Hval, ‘and pour out mirages.’ The surreal beauty of this lyric on her eighth LP Classic Objects comes as close to describing the album’s radiant splendour as any words could. A melting pot of musical styles, the record moves through the vibrant, rustling rainforest of ‘Cemetery of Splendour’, the luxurious, weightless cloudscape of ‘Year of Sky’, and the vast, glittering cosmos of ‘Jupiter’. The Norwegian musician’s heavenly vocals, colourful instrumentation, and deep, rich harmonies give the record a warmth and ease that makes it accessible even for not normally enamoured with art-pop and electronica. All in all, it’s probably the most pure and sublime 40 minutes of music you’ll have heard in a while.
Listen on Tidal.
Read my full review here.
3. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You – Big Thief
An entry on most major year-end lists of 2022, Big Thief’s sprawling collage of endearing country-folk-rock tunes has managed to stick around in the brains of music nerds since its February release. But as tempting as it is to hurl words like ‘overhyped’ around, there is something undeniably special about this band. The heart-warming mix of humour, vulnerability and incisive wisdom in vocalist Adrienne Lenker’s lyrics is certainly a huge part of the appeal. As are the ragged, jumbled soundscapes of ‘Little Things’ and ‘Time Escaping’ and the warbled shoegazey fog immersing tracks like ‘Flower of Blood’. But it’s the whimsical melodies and beautifully naïve lyricism of songs such as ‘No Reason’ and ‘Certainty’ that I find myself revisiting most.
Read my full review here.
2. De Todas las Flores – Natalia Lafourcade
Drawing on decades-old musical styles, and working with a stark palette of bare, unpolished instrumentation, Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia Lafourcade creates one of the most sensitive, lived-in and expressive musical projects of the year. Fragile jazz piano is sprinkled sparingly over the gentle bossa-nova beat of the title track. Elegant, romantic orchestration is juxtaposed with the coarse twang of electric guitar on ‘El lugar correcto’, while the Lafourcade’s enigmatic soprano guides the spindly folk of ‘Pajarito Colibrí’.
Other tracks shatter the stillness. The mariachi-influenced ‘Muerte’ descends into a tangle of twisting trumpets and whooping voices, while distorted guitar, shrill piano, and homemade percussion lend ‘María la Curandera’ a uniquely brittle texture, before Lafourcade concludes on a softer note with the dreamy, rippling piano of ‘Que te vaya bonito Nicolás’.
Listen on Tidal.
Album of the Year: Marram – Matt Carmichael
As Matt Carmichael’s Bandcamp page tells us, it’s not just that he evokes the landscapes of his native Scotland in his pieces, ‘it’s more the other way round, where the image of the sea encapsulates the openness and emotiveness Matt is trying to communicate in his music.’ In the invigorating, windswept melodies, there’s a deep, restless emotionality, as if Carmichael’s saxophone is straining against the edge of its sound, trying to express things just out of its reach.
A friend of mine once asked me, if you were a genre of music, what would you be? I didn’t have a response ready for this rather abstract question at the time, but I think in the rugged, earthy, free-flowing jazz-folk of Matt Carmichael I might have found my answer. Forgive me for getting personal, because I know this won’t translate to everyone, but this is the music that, to me, feels like home.