Sister Wives formed back in 2017, quickly finding a home in Sheffield’s genre-diverse music scene – perhaps not the most obvious place to find a band inspired by Welsh mythology – and divide their lyrics between English and vocalist Donna Lee’s native tongue. Their debut album lifts its name from an ancient burial site on Anglesey, Barclodiad y Gawres (The Giantess’ Apronful), a rare example of a female giant in folklore and one that tied into the band’s desire for, “a devastating, nurturing, awe-inspiring, and most importantly feminine force of their own”. A feminist theme runs throughout a record which explores everything from feeling unsafe in public (Streets At Night), to the societal pressure to have a child (Ticking Time Bomb). Y Gawres is not just thematically diverse, musically too it’s not afraid to push boundaries, from primal, clattering rhythms, to raging buzzsaws of guitar and wavering psych-influenced keyboards, all melding together into a sound entirely their own, and really rather wonderful.
Everything from a stolen hard drive to a replacement rhythm section and Covid-related border controls resulted in a five-year delay to the world hearing Alvvays’ much-anticipated third album. Thankfully Blue Rev was worth the wait! Meticulous planners, Alvvays arrived in the studio with everything carefully mapped out, only for producer Shawn Everett to urge them to forget it all and just play. The result is a record that’s somehow more Alvvays than ever before, the ragged edges sharper, the harmonies sweeter, the lyrics more heartbreaking and funnier than ever. It might take its name from what sounds like the Canadian equivalent of Blue WKD, yet Blue Rev is no sugary-sweet nostalgia fest, it is the sound of a band with their best years ahead of them blossoming like never before.
Originally planned for a 2020 release, the road to Colapso Calypso was a difficult one for Chorusgirl, aka songwriter, Silvi Wersing. A nervous breakdown brought everything in her life to a screeching halt, while taking on the role of her father’s full-time carer saw her relocate away from her former bandmates in London and back to her small hometown in Germany. The resultant record is perhaps unsurprisingly a deeply personal one, a collection of songs about crisis and resiliency, grief and the struggle to let go. Inspired by Kim Deal, who also made a record while caring for her parents, Silvi used music as respite, and on looking back on the songs she wrote, found positivity lurking within, as she channelled her hope for recovery into musical form. While a natural progression from her earlier work, Colapso Calypso seemed to stretch beyond them too, Silvi taking the reigns on bringing her music to life like never before, a personal story that will surely resonate with anyone who’s been touched by difficult times and found a way out the other side.
From South Wales to the frosty outer reaches of Russia, Adwaith’s second album, Bato Mato, was a truly trans-Siberian experience. The follow-up to their 2019 Welsh Music Prize-winning debut, Melyn, for album number two Adwaith went on a voyage of creativity, heading deep into Eastern Europe and spotting the similarities and differences that whizzed in front of their eyes. The resultant record seems to pick up that adventurous spirit and run with it, from the industrial chug of Yn Y Swn to the rugged ambition of the record’s first single, ETO. Ultimately Bato Mato is a record made for stretching imaginations, from Wales to the world at large Adwaith looked at the possibilities in front of them and dived in head first making an optimistic vision into a thrilling reality and resonating their beautiful sound around the world.
Few artists surmise the beautiful sonic melting pot that is London better than Naima Bock. The daughter of a Brazilian father and a Greek mother, her music is an intoxicating stew of Brazilian rhythms and European folk traditions, songs that stretch continents and eras, a rich musical DNA brought thrillingly to life for the ears of 2022. After years spent touring as a member of Goat Girl, Naima briefly took time away from the life of a working musician, studying for an Archaeology degree, yet never stopping writing or playing in her spare time. After a chance meeting with producer Joel Burton, the two hit it off, and the songs Naima had written almost aimlessly over a number of years, gradually began to take shape, 30 musicians and a session at Dan Carey’s studio later, Giant Palm was born. The record feels boundaryless as if Naima has gradually pushed the boundaries in every direction, whether it’s the playful swooping complexity of Campervan or the stark straight talking vocals and call-and-response harmonies of Every Morning, where Naima notes, “it is funny how life can be, when everyone leaves, alone but not lonely”. Perhaps it’s the title track that best surmises Giant Palm, where folkish melodies combine with jarring slashes of keyboard, as Naima repeats the lyric, “I’ll float high, high above it all” as her melodies drift away like a leaf in the breeze. Naima Bock’s music is beautifully unhurried, like taking a gentle stroll down a familiar path, observing every nuance from the colour of the leaves to the call of the birds, it feels hopeful and familiar, and yet with every repeat visit never ceases to amaze.
The third instalment in a trilogy of records that also takes in 2018’s tales of the open road Transangelic Exodus and the intoxicating fury of 2019’s Twelve Nudes, All Of Us Flames was arguably the chapter that wore its armour least obviously. Channelling the twin spirits of 80s Bob Dylan and the collective ferocity of the 60s girl-groups, this record was arguably Ezra’s least self-focused record to date. Instead across the album’s twelve tracks, Ezra wanted to build something, to reach out to the world and form a gang of the repressed and threatened communities, this is a queer album not for the individual, but for, “when you start to understand that you are not a lone wolf”. While rich in community spirit, All Of Us Flames certainly didn’t hold back the brutality life has to offer, take Dressed In Black, a love song about wanting to flee a world that wants to kill you, or Lilac And Black, a futuristic vision where the “queer girl gang” take arms together to overthrow a city so they can live in safety. As well as some of Ezra’s most stark and striking imagery, All Of Us Flames also brought some of her finest songwriting to date, from the soulful crescendos of Points Me Towards The Real to the stadium-sized catharticism of Forever In Sunset, equal parts Bruce Springsteen and Sharon Van Etten. Ultimately, All Of Us Flames is a record that stretched the Ezra Furman we already know and love, it tackled the same themes, religion, queerness, and rage, and displayed them through yet another lens, a fitting farewell to a trilogy of albums that offer compelling evidence that Ezra Furman is one of her generations most important and exciting voices.
Eight albums into the career of Alynda Segarra, aka Hurray For The Riff Raff, she still feels like an artist very much in growth. Life On Earth saw Alynda breaking new ground, with eleven tracks of what she dubs, “nature punk”, a musically eclectic assortment of songs for a world in flux, songs about thriving while disasters seem to keep crashing around you. Recorded with acclaimed producer Brad Cook, Life On Earth is a melting pot of ideas, cooked up by one of this century’s great songwriters, Alynda borrower inspiration from everyone from The Clash to Emergent Strategy author, adrienne maree brown, to create an album of hope against the odds. Whether it was Pierced Arrows, which found Alynda fleeing past memories only to find herself in the eye of an anxious musical storm, or Jupiter’s Dance, a rhythmically playful song about facing a future in the hope of joy as well as terror. Whether it was clattering or cooing, Life On Earth always seemed to be pushing musical and lyrical boundaries, Alynda Segarra’s trademark blend of the political and the personal is as fresh and vital as ever, eight records in, Hurray For The Riff Raff still feel like they’re just getting started.
There are many ways to make a success of being a musician, so to think of someone as doing it right is an odd concept, yet somehow when I look at Kevin Morby’s seven solo albums, his career, and his growth, it just feels correct. He’s built a fanbase as he’s built a back catalogue worthy of their fandom, his music has a range of sounds, and a diversity of place, yet it never fails to sound like Kevin Morby. It’s possibly why every record he seems to put out instantly feels like his best, and This Is A Photograph is certainly no exception. It helps of course that the record begins with the title track, and the best song he’s ever written, it’s playful and cacophonous, bounding in on a gorgeous desert-rock guitar before descending into the repeated howl, “this is what I’ll miss about being alive” if anyone wrote a better song this year I didn’t hear it. The problem of course is how do you follow that, yet Kevin Morby, as usual, had all the answers. The album was recorded in Memphis, yet it began in Kansas City, Kevin flicking through a box of old family photos, just hours after his father had collapsed in front of him and been rushed to hospital. As his father recovered, Kevin continued to meditate on nostalgia and fragility, before setting up camp in Memphis’ Peabody Hotel. There he’d walk the banks of the Mississippi river, thinking of his father and of his heroes, of Jeff Buckley in the spot where he lost his life, of Jay Reatard in the neighbourhood where he spent his last days, returning to his hotel room at night and squirrelling away demos and ideas that would become This Is A Photograph. The result is a record that is both intimate and ambitious, it’s very much in the image of its creator, yet it harks back to the great house bands of the past, a fitting tribute to the legacy of Memphis, to Sun Records, where it was recorded, and to the great American music traditions. The record closes with the playfully morose, Goodbye To Good Times, a song that seems to poke fun at the idea of some perfect golden age, as Kevin sings, “I miss the good times Mama, they’ve gone out of style”, before, noting how, “sometimes the good die young, sometimes the good survive”. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, Kevin Morby is an artist who makes you think, someone whose songs don’t always exist exactly where you think they do on first listen, give them time and they’ll take you on a journey, into a photograph, into a life, and into bittersweet, bittersweet Tenessee.
Hailing from Brooklyn, Market is the creative vehicle of songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer, Nate Mendelsohn. Following on from his home-recorded debut LP, Not Good At Spending Time Alone a.k.a. Cleanliness, and 2020’s Yuy, The Consistent Brutal Bullshit Gong is an unashamedly biographical piece. The record charts a year-long mental health crisis, yet in Nate’s capable hands it is both relatable and at times genuinely quite funny, a witty self-deprecation underpinning his lyrical stream of consciousness, his thoughts tumbling out in a blur of memory and anxiety. Co-produced by regular collaborator Katie Von Schleicher, The Consistent Brutal Bullshit Gong took Nate’s background in experimental music and reworked it through a distinctly poppy ear, the songs are direct with clear unfussy arrangements, whether it’s Bag Of Jeans, which hits straight to the core recalling the likes of early Bright Eyes or the jaunty playfulness of Old, a song about how as a musician you’re always expected to drag up the emotions of the past and present them freshly night after night. Even when the album went further into Nate’s weirder tendencies, the unhinged clatter of Scar or the wonky Cate Le-Bon-like I Would Do That, they still felt accessible and approachable. It might have been an album about the grind of everyday life, an obsessive inward glance of a record, yet The Consistent Brutal Bullshit Gong still felt welcoming, as if Nate was exploring parts of his own mind he’d never previously trodden and taking us with him every step of the way.
What happens when the brightness of new love collides with the painfulness of loss? Angel Olsen’s album Big Time was very much an exploration of that tricky junction, where her first experience of queer love, and then coming out to her family collided with the loss of both her parents in very quick succession. The result is a record that is a melting pot of fierce emotions, fresh grief and fresh love battling for your attention, amplifying and crushing each other, elegies that bristle with the power of life being led. Recorded with producer Jonathan Wilson, Big Time is in someways a simpler affair than the grandeur of All Mirrors, dramatic shifts replaced by subtle shifts, a swell of strings, a synth that exists on the horizon, a brass flourish that comes and goes, leaving just a memory of the beauty it possessed. It wears its emotions like well-earnt badges, from the subtle smile of the title track to the constant searching quality of Through The Fires, “I want you so, I’m ready to go, through the fire, to the limit, to the wall, for a chance to be with you”. In a record of quiet highlights, Go Home is perhaps the one that really digs under your skin, a song about embracing life, even when you want to scream or sulk, “I feel like someone else, but I’m still trying, I’m dancing baby, but I feel like dying”. For a record of lightness and heaviness, it’s fitting it ends with a note of hope, Chasing The Sun, a beautiful swirl of strings carrying the record out, with Angel “having too much fun, doing nothing, busy doing nothing” as she’s, “driving away the blues”. A balm for the difficult times, a celebration for the good ones, Big Time covered it all and cemented Angel Olsen’s spot as one of the century’s most important and compelling songwriters in the process.
Isolation was all the rage in the music of 2022, yet few embraced it quite like A.O. Gerber. While her previous album, 2020’s Another Place To Need, gained acclaim for its complexity and collaboration, for the follow-up A.O. stripped everything back. While previously she worked slowly, seeking feedback from others every step of the way, this time around A.O. took the reigns. Working largely with just co-producer Madeline Kenney in her home studio, she was forced to call the shots and thrived in doing so, “I realized that I can exist as a musician completely outside of other people’s opinions of me”. The result of following her intuition and embracing the seclusion is a record of introspection and thoughtfulness, A.O taking a deep dive into her own mind, carefully exploring the fragile, threads of her past that led her to be the person she is, existing in the subtle non-binaries of a life that is never as black-or-white as you were told it was meant to be.
Much of the album seeks to explore A.O’s childhood, exploring how the rigid constraints of a spiritual upbringing created a sense of shame that stays with you, “I wanted to approach it from multiple perspectives, to try to hold the complexity of formative experiences and relationships, and resist the temptation to over-simplify them”. It is present in Disciple Song, a song for those who seek to control you, “Arbiter of my worthiness, arbiter of truth, make me into a melody, I can sing when you are through,” she sings reclaiming her right to pursue her own life over a backing of engulfing synths and twinkling electronic escapism. Elsewhere Looking For The Right Things sits at the place of “goodness”, as it reconciles purity with the beauty of being a flawed, complex human being, while the guitar-led For leans into the contrasting need to put yourself first and the desire to help others, as A.O. sings, “who am I trying to save? Is it you from yourself? Or is it me from the heartache?” The gloaming isn’t just the title but the essence of this record, a place between worlds, where we can meet all versions of ourselves, and live with our perfect contradictions, the dawn is coming the night will come again, and A.O. Gerber’s vision is perfect just the way it is.
Back in 2020, Tenci came to the world’s attention with their debut album, My Heart Is An Open Field, an album of letting go of painful experiences and the emptiness that can follow them. Two years on, listening to their second album, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing, it was obvious that songwriter Jess Shoman has been moving on. The extra space and healing that time has provided have resulted in an almost opposite feeling, where once they were an empty vessel, here Jess is overflowing, as they sang on the record’s first single, Two Cups, “I didn’t know I had to wait to fill my cup, I won’t wait to fill my cup”. The result is a record of celebration and self-rejuvenation, an album overflowing with life and joy.
The tone for the record is set by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it opening track, Shapeshifter, a song about picking up the pieces and forming yourself into something stronger than what came before. It’s almost like a musical take on the Japanese art of kintsugi, the beautiful repair of Jess Shoman, completed not by golden joinery but with collective vocals, wavering woodwind and the lyrical promise, “I’ll show you how I’m changing”. It’s a promise Jess constantly delivers on throughout a record that feels more confident and ambitious than the beautiful fragility of their debut, whether it’s the bristling folk-rock of Two Cups or the almost nursery rhyme-like, Sharp Wheel, resplendent with a clown’s horn and the lyrical pronouncement, “don’t be scared, we deserve it”. If A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing is a record of reclamation, it is not one of the straight-forward good times, Out Of Body is a beautiful vision of a song, as a stripped-back guitar accompanies Jess watching their spirit drift away, only hoping one day it will, “come back to me, come back to me”, while Sour Cherries looks at excess, how even the sweetest fruit can turn bitter with overindulgence. The record closes with Jess dipping back into one of their favourite themes, the idea of family and legacy writ large across Memories, where a stripped bare folk-song melds into the sound of home movies drifting in and out of earshot, as Jess sings, “memories, memories I’ll take them with me”, as if trying to form a legacy, a series of pictures of a life well lived to comfort her in her later days, something to fill your heart when the final act draws near. There’s a beautiful contrast of complexity and simplicity throughout A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing, it’s there in the music that is both more direct and more complex than before, and in the lyrics too, an album that desires childlike black-and-white answers yet exists in a world of complex greys, the result is something that seems to find a way through, a guide book to life, with plenty of missing pages waiting to be discovered down the road.
8. Caitlin Rose – Cazimi [names]
Nine years is a long time to wait for any record, yet when it’s someone as fabulous as Caitlin Rose, it’s even more painful. Plenty has been made of Caitlin’s break from music, much of it speculation really, as she’s deliberately avoided spreading that truth, and focused instead on what we really should be celebrating, her brilliant new record Cazimi, as she recently told The Guardian, “I don’t think artists owe their stories, I think they owe music. And I’ve owed music for a long time. So I don’t want to add anything to my bill”. The record came about after Caitlin teamed up with friend, collaborator and producer Jordan Lehning, a man who encouraged her to, “paint whatever picture you are trying to paint right now”. Even if the picture did take a little longer than planned courtesy of a pandemic arriving just days after they started recording.
Lifting its title from the astrological term for when a planet is in such close proximity to the sun that it’s considered to be in the heart of it, Cazimi is a record of unravelling and just a touch of pulling it back together. While her vocals are as honey-smooth as ever, Caitlin’s songwriting has clearly matured, these are songs that have lived a little, been through a few things, and picked up a few bumps and bruises along the way. Take the debut single Black Obsidian, it’s in some ways a companion piece to her much earlier song For The Rabbits, a track that explores falling back into old habits, failed loves and depriving yourself of what you need to try and bring the best out of another, “why in the hell do we keep looking back, with the devil always running after us, why did I let your bring me down again?” Elsewhere Nobody’s Sweetheart takes the same heartache but spins it through with a sense of defiance, even if that defiance holds you back, “there’ll be nobody holding your hand, there’ll be no chance left to take and everyone will understand, that there’s no heart left to break”. The record is littered with complex relationships, songs that are scarred and wary, but still sometimes willing to open up, still holding a flicker of faith that the best moments are yet to come. There’s the Odelay-era Beck-like strains of Modern Dancing, where Caitlin sings, “I’m in love with what’s falling apart and this just seems like another false start”, and the country-pop perfection of Blameless, where two lives entwine for nobody’s good, “there’s no point in making it painless, it’s nobody’s fault and baby we’re blameless”. By the time the record reaches its stunning close on the sprightly driving guitars of Only Lies, you feel like you’ve been through the wringer with Caitlin, rolled with the punches, overcome it all, and even broken a few hearts of your own, then just as you think you’ve hit the truth she reminds you, “we’re only lovers and they’re only lies, only words to a song, only words to sing along”. You can put it all in a song, and write the record as truthfully as you can but it’ll only ever be part of the story. Caitlin owed us nothing, but she gave us something magical, a welcome return from one of the world’s finest songwriters, Cazimi was more than worth the wait.
A four-piece band led by songwriter Tyler Jordan, Good Looks’ debut album, Bummer Year is very much a Texan record. It was born in a South Texas coastal town, a place that is torn between nature and heavy industry, between wealth and poverty, between worshipping Oil and worshipping God. With all those dichotomies on show, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Good Looks’ music exists at a crossroads, between your own needs and the wider needs of your community, between folk and rock, between optimism and despair. Even the joy of releasing a brilliant album had to be tempered by something painful when guitarist Jakes Ames was hospitalised after being struck by a car (now thankfully recovered so they can resume touring once more).
There’s something highly relatable about the songs Tyler writes, even if they come from a place thousands of miles away, it’s there in the from-the-heart pronouncements of Almost Automatic and the damnation of corporate greed that is the majestic 21. As well as straight-talking lyrics, there’s something straight to the point about the music. Take the title track, a beautiful slice of stripped back distinctly American indie in the mould of Wilco or My Morning Jacket, which asks the workers to unite despite their differences, “no matter who you vote for, conservative or liberal, through piles of god damn money, your voice don’t make a sound. Our strength is in our numbers, in the streets is where we show them, you force someone to listen to you when they’re fucking scared”. Recorded with the ever-excellent Dan Duszynski, Bummer Year is ultimately a record about humanity, battling through the sludge when it seems distant, and nourishing it in the relationships that make it all worth doing. A folk record that knows when to be loud, a rock record that knows when to be tender, a collection of love songs, protest songs, songs from the gut and songs from the heart.
The word-of-mouth success of Durham indiepop-punks Martha has been one of the DIY-scenes most cheering stories in recent years. Formed in 2011, the band graduated from self-released EPs, to a series of increasingly successful albums and tours on both sides of the Atlantic in ever-growing rooms. A growth made all the more impressive that they did it without compromising their ethics, anti-capitalist stance or warm-hearted community spirit. Their latest offering, their fourth long-player, was a natural follow-on to 2019’s Love Keeps Kicking. While that album was about remaining defiant in a world that was breaking apart, Please Don’t Take Me Back is a record of acceptance, of looking at the burnt-out remains, and working out a way to keep navigating life, even when hope is drifting away. If that all sounds a bit bleak, it is, but it also sounds oddly joyous.
Listening to Please Don’t Take Me Back, I was struck more than ever by Martha’s progress as four individual songwriters, a joyous collective with no obvious leader. The result is a record that seemed to start in one place, and yet expands out into a myriad of directions. On the one hand, there is the title track, asking us to not wallow in nostalgia and embrace the here and now because, “the old times were bad”, on the other there is Hope Gets Harder, a biting take on modern Britain, “a damp and hateful island”, a place where, “as we demonstrated, optimism faded, dreams annihilated, fuck this place I hate it”. More than ever Martha felt like a band pushed to their breaking point, their natural role as purveyors of collective optimism struggling against the tide of political nonsense coming in the opposite direction. That’s not to say this is an unequivocally bleak record, for every Irreversible Motion, a beautifully poignant song about struggling to let the light in on the darkest days, there is F L A G // B U R N E R, a reminder that even as you’re setting the world on fire, you can still find a friend to share it with, “I smoked the cigarette that burned the flag, and I loved you more with every single drag”. If the record is taking Martha’s themes to a wider place, musically too it is stretching them, Neon Lung is as close to a jangle-pop song as they’ve ever got while the opening track, Beat Perpetual, is a rambunctious glam-punk joy, and I Didn’t Come Here To Surrender, is the sort of North-Eastern indie I haven’t heard since Kubicheck! called it a day in the mid-noughties. The record closes on possibly its biggest departure, You Can’t Have a Good Time All of the Time, Naomi channelling Harriet Wheeler atop a backing off shimmering guitars and wavering synths, before the whole band join for a moment of sheer, wistful bliss (and a melody that sounds like a little like the Offspring’s Why Don’t You Get A Job – or is that just me?). Perhaps it’s a fitting sign-off, you can’t have a good time all of the time, Please Don’t Take Me Back knew life wasn’t anywhere close to perfection, yet it still found moments of brightness in the dark, the hope gets harder but it isn’t quite gone yet, grab your lucky purple lighter and let it burn.
Released through the brilliant Scandinavian label, Rama Lama Records, Swedish Punk is the somewhat confusingly titled debut album from the Danish four-piece Kindsight. Formed when vocalist Nina Hyldgaard Rasmussen and guitarist Søren Svensson bonded over a shared love of The Sugacubes, the band have gradually built a reputation as one of Copenhagen’s finest live bands and cemented their reputation on a debut album that combined the wistful tones of 1980’s indie with the shimmering dreamy quality Swedish alternative-music seems to always have in abundance.
Swedish Punk is a record in the great lineage of coming-of-age indie, it seems to exist in the middle ground of adolescence and adulthoood, a theme present in Don’t You Grow Up, the first song the band ever wrote together and Sun Is Always In My Eyes, an unimaginably catchy song about, “stealing money from your mother and feigning to run away from home. Being blessed and unable to see because you’ve got too much sun in your eyes”. If Swedish Punk is a record of nostalgia, it’s perhaps one open to the listener’s own version of that, it has the feel of an early noughties film, a knowing intelligence mixed with a self-deprecating flourish and a desire for simplicity in a world that offers little of it. Throughout we’re treated to a variety of moods, from the gentle acoustic flourish of Laughing Wood to the swaggering, bass-driven Queen Of Cowboys, where Nina’s vocal seems to waver as she sings of wildly bad advice and the wild nature of interacting with the public at large. Particularly wonderful is Terminal Daze 2, a song that bounds on a drum rhythm and a fuzzy, Peter Bjorn & John-like melody, before descending into a weird and wonderful blast of a saxophone. Kindsight’s music feels like the continuation of a musical thread that flows from the birth of indie-pop in the 1980s through to the dream-pop perfection of The Sundays or Alvvays, it felt fresh and timeless all at once, in music heartache and growing up never goes out of style, and in 2022 few people offered it with quite such a flourish as Kindsight.
After releasing a series of fabulous EPs on an array of labels, Why Bonnie’s debut album arrived with more anticipation than most, even before the inevitable pandemic delays. 90 In November was written largely in Brooklyn, where Blair Howerton moved back in 2019, where she found herself in a small apartment, a world away from the vast open spaces of her native Texas. The resultant record is an exploration of place and emotions, an examination of starting somewhere new and the way it affects how you view the place you came from. It is a road record, simultaneously driving away from the place you called home and arriving in your new life. Fittingly for an album written in New York, it completed its circle when it was recorded in Silsbee, Texas, an experience punctuated by, “days walking around with cows and evenings drinking Lone Star beer and looking at the stars”.
The record opens with a delicious squall of feedback, an arresting introduction to a track that is considerably more gentle as it progresses with delicious piano runs and Blair’s lyrical dissection of her tendency to fall back on old habits, “it’s a salty, sweet familiar taste, but it always tastes the same”. Elsewhere the band show their versatility from the slacker-grunge of the title track through to the swaggering dreamy country-rock of the brilliant Galveston as Blair tackles fading memories of a past that plays on a loop, “when I try to remember it I can’t, it’s slipping like quicksand”. The record is littered with memories, never more so than Nowhere, LA, a Louisianna road trip colliding with a fading relationship as she knowingly sings, “it wasn’t my fault, but it wasn’t yours either”. The best is saved until last with one of the year’s great closing tracks, the majestic Superhero, it strips everything back, reminding you what a pure country-vocal Blair possesses as she sings out a love song, with a hint of danger lurking underneath, “I can feel my heart setting a fire so big, it’d burn the city in the blink of an eye, when we’ve cleared away all of the rubble above us there’s a clear blue sky, that’s what loving you feels like”. You’re left as a listener unclear if you’re watching history’s great romance or something burning up in an inexhaustible flame. A debut album many years in the making, 90 In November is the sound of a band maturing from their promising bedroom-pop roots through to something fully realised, a soaring indie-rock band with a beautiful country soul, Why Bonnie
Based out of Leeds, Crake are a quartet based around the visionary songwriting of Rowan Sandle. The band formed as a New Year’s Eve pact on the cusp of 2017, spending their first few years playing around their home city and sharing a series of self-released EPs. Things really took off for the band after a show supporting Buck Meek, who was so enchanted he invited the band along to tour across the EU with his band Big Thief. Inspired by the experience, and their newfound acclaim, Crake began work on what would become their debut album, Human’s Worst Habits, a remarkable collection inspired by nature, grief, kindness and cruelty, all spun through Rowan’s unique worldview.
Much of the record was written as a tribute to Rowan’s friend Anna, who died in Syria after being hit by a Turkish air strike when working for a woman’s liberation group. Although not often faced front-on, grief stalks Human’s Worst Habits like a spectre, a thread that flows throughout as Rowan tries to make sense of what can be learnt from life at its lowest ebb. The subtle references to death emerge throughout, a mouse in Lamb’s Tail who came off worse in a scrape with a cat, or the plants in Rabbit left out in the blazing sun, “I stayed inside, hoped that they would die I guess it’s me taking the easy way out”. In a record of death, it is also contrasted by life, and humanity, never more so than on the majestic Winter’s Song, where, to a soundtrack of wiry guitars and steady drums, it touches on ideas of the coldness we hold within, and the importance of not losing that even as we try and learn to love and grow, “keep a little coldness in you, just wear it soft and gentle, that’s when the dark no longer bites”. A remarkable record, Human’s Worst Habits is the sound of a band who don’t sound quite like anyone else, an album both brittle and bold, beautiful and yes, deeply human, bad habits and all.
Friendship’s debut release for Merge, Love The Stranger, was the follow-up to their acclaimed 2019 offering, Dreamin’. Despite being the band’s most high-profile release to date, it is one of very humble beginnings, the band members working independently from their own homes, mapping out where the songs would go long before they arrived in the studio, ready to make the magic happen. While propelling their music to a far wider audience, Love The Stranger was an evolution, not a revolution, an album that welcomed new fans but still opened its arm to those already enamoured with the band’s previous work. These songs felt intimate, and personal, yet also fabulously universal, by sharing his own story, vocalist Dan Wriggins tapped into a vein of relatability, like an old friend welcoming you to join him for a drink by the fireside.
Love The Stranger isn’t a concept album as such, yet it is one that flows beautifully, the songs woven together by a series of beautiful instrumentals, moments of catching your breath, and quiet contemplation between the deep thoughtfulness on display elsewhere. What songs they are as well, Ugly Little Victory with its vision of perfect domesticity and crippling doubt, “I need solitude, and I also need you, it sucks when it ends and it sucks when it had no end, what an irritating mystery”, or the macho fuzz of Hank, which hides the doubt lurking within, “I’m usually lost and I’ve got precious little finesse, but I’m still the boss, I’m still tougher than the rest”. Male posturing comes and goes throughout, from Mr. Chill’s mindless labour, “I’ve been picking up heavy things and putting them down”, through to Ramekin, a song about closing your heart to avoid facing up to your true emotions. Every moment of opening up your emotions seems to have an equal and opposite reaction of closing up, there’s Season a song about hanging onto the good times, and then there’s Alive Twice, a bittersweet celebration of two entwined lives inspired by the poet Linda Gregg, “walking around with you or just hanging out in your room, didn’t matter what we got up to, every minute with you was like being alive twice”. Love The Stranger is a stride forward for Friendship, more than a record they created a world, a place to rest your weary bones, to ask the questions you need to ask, and wait for the answers to find their way to you. To paraphrase the end of Casablanca, this record could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
The musical moniker of Brooklyn-based artist Benedict Kupstas, Field Guides first emerged back in 2014 with the sprawling mystery of Boo, Forever, followed by the acclaimed 2019 record, This Is Just A Place. His third album, Ginkgo picks up exactly where This Is Just A Place left off, in fact, it calls back to it from the opening line of the opening track, Judee At The Delaware Water Gap (A Prelude) as Benedict sings, “this is just a place, you are just a song, was it a disgrace that I could never play along?” Set to an atmospheric backing of strings and a barely-there guitar line, it’s a perfect introduction to Ginkgo’s world, a musical reference here, “you put on Judee Sill and we sang along”, a nod to the natural world there, “the sound a honey locust makes when its leaves shake in the wind”, and amidst it all a sense of uneasy longing, a feeling that some emotion, some deep thought is about to be processed in front of us.
Throughout the record Benedict encases his thoughts in an array of references, Ginkgo is an album you could spend days exploring and still only feel like you’ve got half the story. Throughout we’re greeted by references to authors, Greek mythology and the Bible, and we’re presented with characters as likely to be plants or animals as they are humans. Yet this is no encyclopedia of Benedict’s inner thoughts, there are moments of real connection, humanity laid out in all its beautiful simplicity, as on Cicadas in the Lemon Trees, when he sings, “it seems I just cannot help but to genuflect at the altar of your allergy to love”, with all the heartbreak of someone who’s tried everything they can and still knows it’s not enough. That sense of devotion and brittleness is a theme he revisits elsewhere, as on the beautiful Mazzy Star-like Margaret, where he mixes Biblical references, woozy woodwinds and straight-talking sentiment, “all that I have is yours for the taking”.
Musically, Ginkgo is almost as varied as its lyrical content, full of beautifully intricate details and crashing waves of melody, each repeat listen throwing up some brand new favourite. From the bassy thump of Salmon Skin to the Bill Callahan-like The City Is A Painting or the echoing sadness of the closing number When I Pulled Slivers from Your Feet, where Benedict regretfully sings, “I know you don’t love me when I act in certain ways”, atop an ever-swelling crescendo of increasingly distorted instruments. Complex, intriguing and ripe for repeat visits, Ginkgo is a stunning record, it’s creators own love of exploration shared open-heartedly, Benedict lived up to the Field Guides moniker, inviting you to explore and discover something new on every visit. No record kept me coming back quite like Ginkgo, a timeless record that soundtracked 2022 like no other album did.
So that just about wraps up 2022, a year I think I can say on a personal and political level was a funny old year. The music was good and scratching the surface revealed some real gems that’ll stay with me long beyond the New Years’ chimes. Here’s to a more peaceful, poetic and positive 2023, with plenty of great records to be discovered along the way.
Enjoy a good list? You can check out my pick of the year’s best EPs HERE.