Photo of Hot Chip by Matilda Hill-Jenkins, courtesy of The Oriel Co.
Choosing favorites is difficult, but I try to set my criteria at 1) albums that I want to share with someone but can’t decide which song is the perfect introduction and 2) albums that I want to listen to in a variety of scenarios, because I want all the experiences with them. Here are the Top 10 albums I played everywhere I went and for anyone who would listen.
- Hot Chip | Freakout/Release (Domino Recording Co)
This album is an emotional rollercoaster of acceptance, empowerment, defeat, and resilience, all wrapped up in some sick dance grooves. “Eleanor” has that Hot Chip cadence that I love for cooking, cleaning, long drives, and yoga, all that pleasantly in-the-zone activity. Other tracks command attention to their unique version of deep thoughts, “Ain’t it hard to be funky when you’re not feeling sexy? And it’s hard to feel sexy when you’re not very funky.” The title track is one of my favorite songs this year and reminds me of “Night and Day,” the song that hooked me in the first place. The big closer, “Out of My Depth,” plays like a mantra: “When I’m swimming out of my depth / And I can barely see the crest of a wave / That might engulf me / Then I’m in my darkest room / But I’m careful not to enjoy it / All too much, but as I leave / It will be helpful to have endured it.” This album is great for moving productively through all the feels.
- Alex Cameron | Oxy Music (Secretly Canadian)
This album ticks all the boxes in a weird way. I always feel like ‘Alex Cameron has something to say about that,’ and it’s never nice. But, like many of my favorite The Carpenters songs, you’d never guess how thick he lays down the snark by tone alone. So, it plays as a deceptively smooth lounge-pop album if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, making for equally great background music and careful listening. Ears may perk up at “I’m sorry, not sorry” regarding your pitiful online presence that pales in comparison to the character singing in “Best Life.” You’ll squirm when you find yourself stuck with the jaunty ear worm “Our sweet parents love us ’cause they don’t see / The bags ’round our eyes and all the bruises on our thighs” from “Hold the Line.” I could always use a little more Roy on saxophone, but really this album may be Cameron’s best yet.
- Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin | Ali (Dead Oceans)
I was familiar with both artists prior to this collaboration, though my knowledge leaned heavily on the Khruangbin side. This collaborative reworking was created to honor Vieux’s late father, Ali Farka Touré, and introduce his musical contributions to new audiences by reworking the elder’s original compositions. In my case, that mission was certainly accomplished, as this album sent me down a rewarding rabbit hole that led to one of my favorite discoveries of the year (see Mathieu Chedid in my other list, coming tomorrow). This dreamy blend of Texas-style psychedelic with intricate Malian guitar work is addicting. Laura Lee’s higher-pitched whisper is the perfect complement to Vieux’s sharp and direct vocal quality. They meander together casually, like relaxing in the shade on a hot afternoon. If you need a moment of calm, give “Diarabi” a spin and let your head bob along like a leaf flickering in a gentle breeze. Check “Tongo Barra” for a slightly funkier, groovier manifestation of their combined efforts, or “Mahine Me” for a little more blues.
- Jack White | Fear of the Dawn (Third Man Records)
Such an energetic release from Jack White this year! He is on fire here with gritted teeth and more weird sounds you never knew a guitar could make. This album has a momentum that propels each movement within the song and each song to the next. It’s as electric as the flame blue he adopted as a color scheme for this album. Pleasantly abrasive, he’s back to guitar riffs that make you scrunch up your nose and rhythms that make your feet stomp. Cheers to Q-Tip’s fevered rhymes spit into a fuzzy mic on “Hi-De-Ho.” The splashy drums of “That Was Then, This is Now” could easily be a late-era White Stripes song. The whole thing has a cohesive vibe, cold and echoing, like singing into tin cans connected as a telephone.
- The Black Angels | Wilderness of Mirrors (Partisan Records)
My goodness we waited a long time for this album. Even before Covid wreaked havoc upon vinyl pressing and release dates, it had already been three years since a Black Angels release, which is basically an eternity according to current standards. Tour schedules suggested something new was on the way, but dates were rescheduled and rescheduled some more until this nearly hour-long gem was finally loosed upon us shortly before their St. Louis show. While it’s normal to hope your old favorites don’t get neglected on a promo tour, I was actually wishing they’d play the new album start to finish. It’s their classic sound, but somehow more alive. “Empires Falling” has a familiar guitar whine but everything is somehow sharper, more confident. “El Jardin” is a good example of the elements they’ve honed over the years and the beautiful structures they are now building with them. The lyrical strum, the rumbling drums, the aching vocals of “Vermilion Eyes” create a sound so beautiful it hurts.
- Black Lips | Apocalypse Love (Fire Records)
The more things change, the more they stay the same, and the Black Lips are still cranking out rowdy party anthems as only they can. As usual, the tracks are varied, each with its own vibe, due to vocal styles and vocalists in constant rotation. Weaving it all together is a crusty cowboy garage rock vibe sticking out its tongue at the existence of the word should. They excel in the arts of self-deprecation, nihilism, and profanity. Reading their lyrics aloud would make most people blush like a good round of Cards Against Humanity. Give the title track a try. I bet “Sharing My Cream” is even worse than you imagine. The irreverence is delicious, but there’s also a deep fatalism beneath the jokes, and that complexity makes them timeless.
- Osees | A Foul Form (Castle Face Records)
Now, this is not one I would recommend to just anyone or listen to just any old time. This particular arrangement of the band (aka Thee Oh Sees, aka Oh Sees, aka OCS) is on the frenetic side. More akin to the old Coachwhips days, this is a pogo fest waiting to happen. It’s screamy, screechy, and brutal, stopping and starting abruptly, with vocals that harken back to croaky tones of “I Need Seed.” The tracks are a quick slap in the face, all clocking in under four minutes. It feels like they’re thumbing their nose at you (I was today years old when I learned this is called ‘cocking a snook’). The effects in “Fucking Kill Me” sound just as sassy as the title, almost like a demented PeeWee’s Playhouse. And is it just me, or does anyone else hear a little Jesus Christ Superstar in “Frock Block”? It’s a gloriously defiant collection of pent-up angst, and I hope get the chance to see the live version burst into flames on stage.
- Dr. John | Things Happen That Way (LowA9)
This posthumous release is comprised of completely new material, delightful duets, and personal touches on standards, all given additional significance with the gift of hindsight. New originals such as “Sleeping Dog” and “Holy Water” demonstrate the songwriting fire that still burned in Dr. John’s self-admonitions when we lost him in 2019. Covers of Hank Williams, Sr. classics take on a characteristically bluesy and staggering feel in “Ramblin’ Man,” while “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is a tender, particularly delicate take on the country crooner. There is a joy that comes through in the collaboration with Willie Nelson in “Gimme That Old Time Religion” and Willie’s son, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, on “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” For a straight shot of New Orleans freedom, give the Aaron Neville duet cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line” a listen and feel the tension melt away. Together, the package is a unique contribution to The Night Tripper’s beloved catalog and a treat to anyone hungry for just a little more.
- Caustic Casanova | Glass Enclosed Nerve Center (Magnetic Eye Records)
Here to make sure we don’t forget to have fun with music, Caustic Casanova gives us an ecstatic prog party of a new record. These folks have impressive musical chops that they never take too seriously, resulting in thrillingly layered tracks cranked out with more beaming smile than smirk. Tucked within the mille-feuille are hints of fundamental greats such as Yes, King Crimson, Thin Lizzy, and Rush, with imaginative guitar work specifically conjuring Larry LaLonde and Adrian Belew, all laced together with a unique metal bite. They maintain their trademark vocal style of foreboding Greek chorus – “Thought police / nobody knows who you are / Thought police / everyone knows who you are / Thought police / nobody knows who they are /Thought police / everyone knows where you are” – with some exciting new touches, including a little 8-bit magic in “Shrouded Coconut.”
- King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard | Changes (KGLW)
They almost lost me for a minute there. These Aussies churn out albums and live recordings and cutting room floor assemblages on a near bi-monthly basis. I was cool with it when it meant there was a little something for everyone. The last few albums, however, took a turn for the pseudo-speed metal. It’s candy for the segments in their ginormous fanbase who are in it for the rowdy pits that grew from the Nonagon Infinity-era energy. And while that album easily remains one of my personal Top Five KGLW albums, I’d also count Sketches of Brunswick East, their collaboration with Mild High Club,in my short list. Changes brings me back to that special place in their catalog, emphasizing the mellow and quirky style of Cook Craig a.k.a. Cookie a.k.a. Pipe-eye, whose solo work I adore. On the King Gizz spectrum, Changes sits in a jazzier, jammier place, alongside Fishing for Fishies and Gumboot Soup, where the flute and drums dance, the bass is funky, the vocals are falsetto, and the jams roll along drowsily like a gently spinning inner tube on a float trip. Yep, it feels like a return to “The River,” a classic from 2015, which is to say, their beloved and fundamental roots. | Courtney Dowdall