Top Albums of 2022

mickyates Culture, Ideas, Mick's Photo Blog, Music Leave a Comment

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, 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 it 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 redefined indie rock for the twenty-tens with quality in all they did. Not having made an album since 2016 you might wonder what they might do now. Pop? Angst over what is going ion in the world? What? Well, this record shows that to stay current, the best thing is to be in tune with your band mates. 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, unhurried, effortlessly cool as f***.

7. Ishmael Ensemble, Versions of Light

The first New British Jazz album on  my list, this is a collection of reworks, remixes and reimagined versions of the tracks from their stunning first album, Visions of Light. 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 this album, from head bangers to ethereal chorus. Only released at the end of November, I think this is my most played vinyl of 2022.

6. The Comet is Coming, Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam

Psych Jazz, and then some. Despite the silly name, a great album. Dan Leavers (synths), Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone, Sons of Kemet) and Max Hallett (drums) get carried away in huge improvised solos. Dance tunes, no vocals, fast and heavy, the album comes right at you. A supremely confident record, apparently made in just four days.

5. Nilüfer Yanya, Painless

I am going to quote Pitchfork. ‘The singer-songwriter’s striking second 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. Nilüfer’s lyrics and engrossing, listen carefully. The guitar playing is unhurried yet has purpose. The musical influences are from all over. If you don’t know this 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 was on heavy rotation. Alexis Petrifies in The Guardian noted that ‘Abel Tesfaye confirms his status as an all-time great with an album of icy 80s-inflected splendour‘. Listening to this album is like getting out your 1980’s transistor radio, and putting it close to your ear. There are lots of guests, and each song is superbly crafted pop. There is nostalgia, but the production is so clearly 21st century that every track is a statement. Even the cutaways.

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. A standout, thoughtful writer with a soulful voice, effortlessly cool. I think we will hear a lot more of Yaya 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. Could easily have been my album of 2022.  Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, accompanied by drummer Tom Skinner created an avant-jazz masterpiece. Not nearly as pissed-off or relentless as a ‘proper’ Radiohead album, the record crafts a unique blend of Thom’s mournful guitar with surprisingly energetic vocals, Jonny’s soulful piano and orchestration honed by the movies, and Tom’s intense drum ethic. In fact, maybe 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.

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’.

Hard to say it better than that. The album is a total blast, full of joy and a real sense of community and respect between the musicians. With all the various inputs and genres, it could sound fragmented and messy. But it all hangs together, and it is stunning. ‘What I’m Meant To Be‘ sets a novel benchmark in New British Jazz. We have to see them live in 2023.

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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 worth reading properly. There is also the original mono mix of the LP which 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.

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And, to finish off, my Top 20.

Mastodon

mickyates Ideas, Media Theory, Mick's Photo Blog, Personal Leave a Comment

There is a lot of noise about Mastodon right now, given Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Here’s my explainer.

First, look at https://fediverse.space/instance/mastodonapp.uk, an interactive tool to explore the Mastodon space.

In the first image, each dot is a server in the federated space (‘fediverse’) and the links show the strength of connections to other servers – also called ‘instances’. Each is independently owned and maintained. Some focus on geography, some on subjects (comics, art, politics, sex workers safe space etc.). It is entirely up to the users of the instance. I joined mastodonapp.uk which is generalist.

mastodonapp.uk is the blue dot near the centre of the first image. There are currently 35,000 users of this instance, including as of yesterday Stephen Fry. Users aren’t just stuck in this instance – you can connect with users of all of the instances others across the world. Hence Stephen already has 38,000 + followers.

The second image shows the nearest neighbours to mastodonapp.uk – i.e. the instances whose users have (so far) the strongest links with your own. The closest purple dot (just below the centre blue one) is an instance in Germany, for example.

In other words, the fediverse is exactly like the structure of the internet (duh!) with interconnected servers. But the WWW serves to propagate the same information across the entire space through its servers. So, Google is Google and Twitter is Twitter. Unlike Twitter, though, each Mastodon instance can have their own rules as to what is allowed and what isn’t.

Also, so far, there are no algorithms to direct what you see. And there is no advertising, targeted or otherwise 😊 You can view your ‘home instance’, hashtags you choose, or the entire federated space, all in chronological order.

Oh, and you can self-verify for free by linking to a website that you own (i.e. can edit and add a short code to). You can see what that looks like in the header with two of my websites verified in green.

Disclaimer: I used to study and write about network theory.