It is that time of year, and here is my list of albums of the year. As usual this is based on the number of times I have had them on repeat on Apple Music and in other formats, mainly vinyl, and a non-trivial amount of thinking about the music.
Some of the choices might surprise you, and I am sure that I will get told off for missing some (what, no Beyoncé??). 2022 has been a good year for music though perhaps not quite as strong as, say, the exceptional 2020 which is interesting as that was lockdown year. Or maybe I am biased as 2020 was the year of Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple and Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers, both of which must be in the running for best albums of the decade.
All of the choices have great production values. That is a given. And as always I just love the creativity in the album cover art, which is almost reason alone to buy the vinyl.
It is interesting to compare this list with my choices for 2021, which was almost all female artists, writers or vocalists, and 2020, which was a bit more rock-oriented. This year there is an increased orientation towards New British Jazz which is remains a very exciting scene. That label may be a bit of a misnomer as it is a very eclectic sound – free jazz, afrobeat, electro dub, a touch of psych and more – though as I write the words, I sense a certain tranquil solidity in my choices this year.
My Top 20 is at the bottom of this post, and so is an Apple Music playlist. Let’s start with #10.
10. The Arctic Monkeys, The Car
This was a change of direction for the band – or was it just a change versus expectation as everyone seemed to want AM all over again. 2018’s hypnotic (and difficult?) Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino foreshadowed the change, though The Car is an easier listen. The album oozes style, and the words have substance, with symphonic orchestration throughout. There are many genres scattered through the tracks – baroque pop, funk, elements of jazz, soul, electronic, glam and even vintage film soundtracks.
I think that this is the band’s most intimate album yet, with Alex Turner mainstreaming his inner crooner. There is a touch of autobiography about the songs, a lot of mystery and, frankly, much longing. To be listened to sipping a well-aged malt whisky.
9. Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin, Ali
This must be the ultimate fusion record, so hard to place yet so exciting to hear. Vieux Farka Touré has always aimed to make his own way, stepping away from his father’s towering reputation, whilst playing guitar reminiscent of the great American blues artists. But in Ali, he confidently reinterprets some of his father’s best-known songs. Partnering with Khruangbin, who have always pushed the boundaries of what music might sound like, together they deliver a magical result.
Dub reggae, funk, Ethiopian jazz, south-east Asian pop and hazy psychedelia. Get lost in the music, the words or just the feeling of floating along. After you listen once, then play it a second time, close your eyes and hear more. Beautiful record.
8. Warpaint, Radiate Like this
In many ways Warpaint’s blend of dream pop and art-psych was unique in indie rock for the twenty-tens, with a tight quality in all they did. But not having made an album since 2016 you might wonder what they would do now. More of the same? Angst over what is going in in the world? Well, this record shows that to stay current, the best thing to do is to remain totally in tune with your band mates and make your own music. As the NME noted ‘[Radiate Like This] introduces the band’s revamped sound, places an emphasis on low-end and atmospheric electronics; there’s a trip-hop feel throughout the album, which is decidedly different from the poppier place we left them in on its predecessor’.
One of the lead singles, Stevie, could reference any of the other famous Stevies’ – Wonder, Nicks? And it sounds like either of them might actually have written it. Lovely vibe, an instinctive tightness between band members, unhurried, and (having checked the Urban Dictionary) cool as f***.
7. Ishmael Ensemble, Versions of Light
The first ‘New British Jazz’ album on my list, although that may be a stretch, as there is everything from Four Tet to Bon Ivor to ‘astral-jazz-goes-industrial’ (quoting the Guardian). This record is a collection of reworks, remixes and reimagined versions of the tracks from their stunning first album, Visions of Light. Leader of the Bristol-based collective Pete Cunningham says that the intent ‘was to avoid just putting together another predictable club-centric remix package with a few extra kick drums added here and there, instead I’ve approached this record as an opportunity to further lean into the collaborative nature of Ishmael Ensemble, whether that’s asking friends to rework tracks or inviting new vocalists to add their story to the melting pot‘.
Eclectic is the only way to describe the album, from head bangers to ethereal chorus. Only released at the end of November, I think this is my most played vinyl of 2022. You can find a limited edition on Bandcamp.
6. The Comet is Coming, Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam
Electronic-Psych-Jazz-Rock, and then some. Despite the silly name, a great album. Dan Leavers (Danalogue – synths), Shabaka Hutchings (King Shabaka – saxophone – Sons of Kemet, ) and Max Hallett (Betamax – drums) get carried away in huge improvised solos. Dance tunes, no vocals, fast and heavy, the album comes right at you. In the All About Jazz review, Chris May noted that ‘Some observers will deny that Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam is jazz, especially on hearing the opener, ‘Code’. Others will not care how the music is categorised. It combines a jazz sensibility with a rock one, it triggers cerebral and visceral responses, and it will peel the socks clean off unshod feet’.
My favourite track, ‘Atomic Wave Dance’, sums up this supremely confident record, a total blast. The record was made in just four days at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio. Also worth noting is that the album cover has more than a nod to Sun Ra, suggesting a certain intellectual lineage.
5. Nilüfer Yanya, Painless
This was perhaps my biggest ‘ah ha’ when I played the record after reading Pitchfork’s ‘best album’ review in March (8.4). Quoting that review: ‘The London songwriter lingers in feelings of heartbreak, dislocation, and rejection, and refuses to let them go … the album excels at a kind of subtle disclosure, relying less on power than it does texture and immaculately sparing detail‘. Of all the albums in my top ten, this is the hardest to pin down, though heartbreak and dislocation are a constant. Nilüfer’s lyrics are engrossing, so you have to listen carefully especially as there is (to my ageing ears) sometimes a bit of mumbling going on. The musical influences are from all over – echoes of Sade, Radiohead guitar, Lorde’s power.
I went back to Nilüfer’s debut album, and her voice moved between a kind of falsetto to a strident R&B, and the orchestration was pop-rock. On this record, she wanders between a rather breathy delivery to something that she knows is cool. The guitar playing is unhurried yet has a consistent purpose in working with her voice. If you haven’t heard this self-aware album, you are missing a treat. Settle down, turn it up, and close your eyes.
4. The Weeknd, Dawn FM
Released at the start of the year, this record was on heavy rotation. Alexis Petridies in The Guardian noted that ‘Abel Tesfaye confirms his status as an all-time great with an album of icy 80s-inflected splendour‘. It is that strange beast ‘the concept album’, and listening to it is like getting out your transistor radio under the covers, and putting it close to your ear. There are lots of guests, and each song is superbly crafted, even the radio cutaways. Tesfaye executive produced the album himself, with help from pop maestro Max Martin and experimental electronic musician Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never. The result has a kind of grandeur in the way that it all hangs together yet each track surprises. His voice has never been better. The record is in some ways an exercise in nostalgia, through the production is so clearly 21st century that every track is a timeless statement.
In the world of art and photography, I have long had an interest in the concept of ‘the sublime’. For Burke, the sublime was an experience of shock and awe; for Kant, the sublime revealed a reality that is fundamentally indeterminate, undecidable and unpresentable. He said ‘We call sublime that which is absolutely great‘; and for Schiller, the sublime is an ecstatic experience. Dawn FM is sublime.
3. Yaya Bey, Remember Your North Star
Jazz, R&B, soul and reggae all in one splendid album. I am surprised that this didn’t get picked up more. The songs are serious, reflecting personal traumas and including reference to her own experiences of depression. She described the album ‘as a thesis’, a way to center Black womanhood while working through the misogynoir that occurs in their romantic relationships. That said, the record often has real moments of joy, and there is an infectious thread.
Ben Beaumont-Thomas in the Guardian wrote: ‘The funny skits and genre-hopping create a breezy feel, but there’s a sense that Bey is deflecting with humour because when the existential moments come, they hit hard. ‘You’re born alone and you’ll die the same,’ she sings, and her mother, she now understands, was ‘a heavy thing / too broken to be a daughter / too wild to be a lover’. Yaya is a talented, thoughtful writer with a soulful voice and sense of humour, I think we will hear a lot more of her in the coming months and years.
2. The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention
Almost a Radiohead album, yet actually something unique and powerful in its own right. It is the first time that Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have worked together properly outside their main band. Now, working with drummer Tom Skinner (jazz-funk Sons of Kemet, electronic fusion Floating Points, and UK rapper Kano) they have created an avant-jazz masterpiece right out of the box. Not nearly as pissed-off or relentless as a ‘proper’ Radiohead album, the record crafts a unique blend of Thom’s mournful guitar with often surprisingly energetic vocals, Jonny’s soulful piano and orchestration honed by the movies, and Tom’s intense and experimental drum ethic.
It seems that Tom has put new creativity into the Radiohead duo. He certainly offers new sonic energies with afro-futurism and free jazz. The album sounds like the three of them have played together for years. Can’t wait for the follow-up, which Thom recently said is in the works. Oh, and check out Tom’s lovely jazz album, Voices of Bishara, just released. Busy man!
1. The Ezra Collective, What I’m Meant To Be
Kate Hutchinson in the Guardian gave this record 5 stars, and wrote: ‘Starting [the track] No Confusion, the voice of the late Nigerian drummer Tony Allen intones: ‘I’m playing jazz my way’. As are Ezra: their ever-expanding vocabulary – always heavy on afrobeat, dub and the young sounds of London – includes riotous salsa, UK funky, what sounds like the brass backbone to South African gqom and some seriously impressive genre blends. The mellifluous vocals of chameleonic rappers Kojey Radical and Sampa the Great wrap around their music, serpentine-like; singers Emeli Sandé and Nao sparkle respectively on Siesta (recalling MJ Cole’s Sincere) and the cosmic devotional Love in Outer Space. Ezra Collective show off not just their intuitive playing, but their knack for songwriting’.
Ok, I lied. This is really a Top 11, but previously I haven’t included remasters in my list. In 2022 I will make an exception with this.
The Beatles, Revolver
It is is difficult to understate how different Revolver was on its release in 1966, and many people, myself included, consider this The Beatles’ best album. Tomorrow Never Knows literally blew people away, and the cover by Klaus Voormann was a big deal (he won a Grammy for the art). I remember the day I got the mono vinyl, which I still have though it is rather worn. It is no exaggeration to say that the music was on repeat everywhere. Extraordinary times, as only in May of 1966 The Beatles had released Paperback Writer / Rain. In those days, singles and albums were quite separate.
This remastered package is just excellent. The songs sound fresh, voices stronger, more separation and clarity in the drumming. Yet it all retains the creative surprises that the original hit us with. The alternate takes are fascinating, and the entire deluxe package is a joy. It is one of those rare ‘super editions’ where the outtakes are truly worth listening to, and the booklet is also a great read. The box contains a vinyl of the original mono mix which now replaces my 56 year old version 🙂
If you haven’t got this, and even if you are not a diehard fan, put it on your Santa list.
And, to finish off, my Top 20.
And if you really want to go there, I started with a Top 50 and gradually whittled it down. Here is that 50 🙂