SOS – SZA ★★★★


If SZA’s gonna consistently put out classics, I’m fine waiting five years between releases, and I’m happy with them including 23 tracks. 

SZA’s stardom in 2022 is so much bigger than it was back in 2017, when she was about to release Ctrl, so it makes sense SOS would be a little more pop-forward and not as raw or intimate. But that does not at all take away from the music, her soothing and emotional voice, her clever lyrics or the fabulous production she works around. And a popular R&B singer not making a record that leans towards producing a few dance hits nowadays is pretty refreshing. 

For a record this long, it really does move and keep your interest by changing tones and doing more than just her dreamy, on my own at nighttime-vibed songs we love over and over again. The instantly catchy “Kill Bill” and “Blind” do that really well, while dark, heavier songs  like “Low” and “Shirt,” as well as “Used,” “Smoking on my Ex Pack” and “Forgiveness” bring some classic hip-hop beats to the mix. I don’t know where she found that unused Ol’ Dirty Bastard sample but it works. She also includes some summer poolside or beach songs, “Notice Me,”  “Conceited,” “Too Late” that widen her range.  It’s a testament to how talented and adaptable SZA is that she can produce an R&B record that sounds 100 percent authentic, stays true to traditional Hip-hop/R&B but also can appeal to a mass audience that might not always like slower, softer songs like this on the regular.  

My criticisms are slim and pretty nitpicky, and come with a handful of compliments too. The guitar driven acoustic or power-pop tracks near the middle of the record feel a little random.  “Ghost In the Machine” probably works best, “Nobody Gets Me” and “Special” are fine songs, but “F2F” isn’t my cup of tea. They serve as a nice change of pace on what is a long album, but there are so many pop and indie artists making sad guitar tracks or pop rock that I didn’t really need that from SZA too, especially when she’s sooo good at the more classic hip-hop based R&B. 

Another critique is that I don’t know if I needed her singles from the past two years — as good as they all are — to be added to the album, especially just kind of tacked on near the very end. “Good Days” is probably my favorite SZA song, but it had been out for two years when the album dropped and already had north of 600 million plays online. Undeniably a great, huge hit, as was “I Hate You” and even “Shirt,” but they existed out in the world and were entities on their own. When you’ve got 23 songs to get through and an hour plus of new music already, it could have been streamlined a bit, or at least integrated a bit more into the track list. 

SOS being released just a few weeks before the end of the year, I might be overhyping it a little with my ratings as I try to finalize my list of Best 2022 Albums. Overall though, it’s a great, enjoyable record from the very first listed that continues to grow even more as you get familiar with it, and I keep going through it and back to it over and over again.

The Forever Story – JID ★★★★½

2022The Forever StoryJID★★★★½89Hip-Hop

Whether it’s rapping on his own albums, as a feature or part of a collaboration, I think JID has pound-for-pound become the most consistently high-performing hip-hop artist out there today. 

Sure, when Kendrick Lamar releases something it’s still an event that demands your attention unlike almost anyone else. And there are guys like Tyler The Creator, who’s multi-faceted creativity as an artist — from his instantly recognizable brand of produced to varying personas through the years — has constantly pushed musical boundaries in the genre. And there’s Vince Staples, who every year puts out a solid, subtle, smart record that just works. 

But JID does not miss these days. The Forever Story is somehow only JIDs third solo record, and his first since 2018. But in the time since then, his few features a year routinely dominate other rappers on tracks. That’s on display throughout his 2022 release. 

His spit-fire delivery is up there among the most technical rappers we’ve had, and grabs hold of you with ease in a way few others can. The way he intricately weaves his words and themes together is rivaled only by the best wordsmiths out there. And he can smoothly ride an ever-changing beat with supreme confidence, energy and varying vocal inflections. Plus, he just sounds cool as shit saying most of the things he comes up with. 

This new album is an absolute powerhouse that fully showcases JID’s skill and ability as a lyricist, a crafter of rhymes and lines. The production is essentially perfection for that task, bringing underground feelings of grit and rawness while also placing moments of more soulfulness, vocal samples, softer R&B stylings and classical music precisely at the best times. 

Every song on here is good, but “Raydar,” “Dance Now” and “Crack Sandwich” are a stellar 1-2-3 punch at the very top of the album. “Surround Sound” with 21 Savage is a fun track that lets the duo rap over a “Ms. Fat Booty” sample, appropriate for an album that later features a timeless Mos Def/Yasiin Bey verse over a beat that would fit right in as part of Black on Both Sides back in 1998. “Just In Time” brings JID and Lil Wayne together for the first time, a great pairing considering JID’s swagger, energy and even vocal quality are clearly influenced by old school, braggadocious Wayne mixtapes. The slower, more reflective and soulful tracks like “Sistanem,” with James Blake, “Can’t Make You Change” with Ari Lennox and “Kody Blu 31” help give balance to the record in a way that feels appropriate, not forced. 

I loved DiCaprio 2 in 2018, but that album’s hard hitting, sometime heavily-handed instrumentals did some of the work in making it a success, and led to more of a well-crafted mixtape feel versus an intentionally-crafted work of art. JID shows so much growth on The Forever Story, and the result is more honed in themes, a more refined, sophisticated sound and a better product overall. 

Ants From Up Here – Black Country, New Road ★★★★★

2022Ants From Up ThereBlack Country, New Road★★★★★97RockArt RockPost Rock

Following up a debut that is as beloved by a fanbase as Black Country, New Road’s For the first time will always be a tough task for a band. That’s especially the case when a band creates such a unique and distinctive sound on their debut, which features Eastern European melodies, math rock rhythms, wild dynamic shifts and vocals that were poetic, highly personal but also came across as somewhat sarcastic and unhinged. 

Somehow, the band exceeded expectations with record two, and not by doubling down on their original sound or falling back on more conventional instrumentation, but by almost transforming what they were conveying entirely. 

Ants From Up Here is an absolutely beautiful album filled with warmth, life and personality. The chamber instruments in each song build effortlessly to shape the emotion being conveyed through the lyrics. The band doesn’t follow traditional song structures too often, but the music never feels uncomfortable or forced. Some of the best and biggest moments on the record are these buildups of chamber music and group singing, which are reminiscent of peak Arcade Fire if you had to find a comparison but without the childlike, innocent aesthetic. 

From the violins to the pianos, to the horns, the classical guitar and all the rest, there isn’t an album that sounds quite like this, or that moves so flawlessly both within each song and as a full package. Averaging almost 6 minutes a song (and with two songs over 9 minutes in length), you wouldn’t expect Ants From Up Here to be as accessible as it is, but the record doesn’t drag at all and keeps you fully engaged. 

You also hardly ever find vocal performances as emotionally moving and authentic sounding as Isaac Wood’s here. He sounds like he’s just talking at times instead of singing, but you can hear and feel the agony in his voice, the regret and doubt he sometimes has, and the reminiscence of love and relationships. The ballads are emotional, but he also throws in funny lines, some self depicting comparisons that make it all feel warm, lively and, most importantly, real. The lyrics can be heart wrenching and extremely personal, but still relatable and easy to understand. The themes and symbolism are cleverly placed, and return throughout the album in a way that makes it feel familiar and more impactful with each return listen. 

Ants From Up Here grabbed my attention from the opening saxophone notes and strings on the intro and “Chaos Space Marine,” all the way through the Midwest-emo section of “Basketball Shoes” that transitions into the epic, anthemic, singalong-style melody that closes the record.  “The Place Where Her Inserted the Blade” and “Good Will Hunting” are probably my favorite individual tracks, but each song on the album can stand alone as its own, fully formed thought, as well as perfectly as part of the complete project. I could go track-by-track to point out the best moments, but there is so much depth in the lush instrumentation, so much meaning in the lyrics and so much movement in the music that I’d be writing for hours. I can’t say enough good things about this record. 

Cheat Codes – Black Thought and Danger Mouse ★★★★

2022Cheat CodesDanger Mouse, Black Thought★★★★75Hip-Hop

Cheat Codes brings together a seemingly natural pairing: Black Thought — lead MC for the Roots and a legendary voice in the conscious-rap movement of the late 90s and early 2000s — and Danger Mouse —a longtime producer who broke out in the mid 2000s for his hip-hop work influenced by the same era, and whose styles more traditionally fit in with garage rock, soul and vocal pop records he’s produced over the past 15-ish years.

Black Thought shows that with age comes wisdom and adaptability. Always able to turn a phrase or extend a line with an odd rhyme scheme, he settles in right away over Danger Mouse’s smooth grooves, muted drum kit and high hats. It doesn’t sound like a Roots record, but the production quality is close enough that it feels natural and both artists showcase each other’s strengths really well.

Black Thought brings meaning and energy with his performance, while Danger Mouse fills in some of the spaces with fuzzy vocal samples and by inviting some of his past collaborators along with them. Run The Jewels (which Danger Mouse worked with in 2017 on “Chase Me”) and A$AP Rocky (production credits on about half of 2015’s At.Long.Last.ASAP) sound great together on “Strangers,” and a long-lost MF Doom verse brings the thunder on “Belize.” Joey Bada$$ and Conway the Machine also contribute verses that fit right in.

I know Danger Mouse isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and despite spanning across different genres he does have a distinct sound that could come across as a little flat, mechanical or lacking depth (As a U2 fan I know what it’s like to hope for something sprawling only for it to come across as a bit lifeless instead). Even here, there is a narrow range of sounds and dynamics. For example, on “Saltwater” Danger Mouse is clearly going for a classic, sinister Conway vibe, something that would fit on a Conway album, but without leaning on a sub-baseline, it doesn’t have that same dark rumble or depth that it could, and sounds more piercing than heavy.

However, I think the narrower range here does work to Cheat Codes‘ advantage. For the few instances that could have been a bit more dynamic or dramatic, there are more than enough moments that directly come from the consistency he and Black Thought bring, which glues all the songs together, lets the tracks all flow into one another seamlessly, and allows the different voices and textures that pop in and out to really shine.

Seeing how well it all fits together, it’s kind of crazy to think this is Danger Mouse’s first full hip-hop record since Demon Days and The Mouse and the Mask in 2005. Maybe there will be more to come.

Expert In A Dying Field – The Beths ★★★★

2022Expert In A Dying FieldThe Beths★★★★80RockIndie RockJangle Pop

Expert In A Dying Field represents pretty much a best-case-scenario for what is essentially a pretty basic, modern power pop album. 

The songs are really fun and playful and the vocals warm, welcoming and familiar. There’s a good mix of lead guitar work and solos that go hard enough to stand out and add color, but aren’t loud enough to take over or drown out the softer, jangle pop elements and twangy, underlying guitar work. Most of the songs are upbeat and fast paced, but there’s a mix of more mid-tempoed tracks mixed in which prevent everything from sounding the same or repetitive. 

This is the first album by The Beths I’ve listened to, but they pretty instantly drew me in. The title track — one of my favorite songs of the year — is reminiscent of a New Pornographers/Neko Case track with energetic drums and guitar, cheerful vocals and harmonies and a killer hook that gets caught in your head pretty quickly. Most songs on the album follow a similar recipe — “Knees Deep,” “Head In The Clouds,” “Best Left” and “Change In The Weather” all being prime examples — but the formula works really well, bringing the best elements of contemporaries like Alvvays, Real Estate and others.

“Your Side,” and “When You Know You Know” are a bit less energetic but still utilize those jangle guitar riffs and classic pop choruses. The final track, “2 am,” has a more spacey vibe than the rest, with strings and distant, lonely guitar work that slowly climaxes in a way that serves as a great ending to the record.  

The straightforwardness of the indie rock elements across Expert In A Dying Field  is just charming. The Beths aren’t trying to be heavier than they need to, or to add dreamy or poppy production elements unnecessarily. Maybe it is a little basic, but it all seems pretty authentic, and ultimately is one of 2022’s triumphs.

Alpha Zulu – Phoenix ★★★

2022Alpha ZuluPhoenix★★★63RockIndie PopSynthpop

On Alpha Zulu, Phoenix gives you exactly what they’re supposed to — fun, upbeat tracks with catchy choruses, soaring synths, kind of weird lyrics and a blend of guitar effects and electronic bleeps and clicks that all result in a really colorful record. 

The title track opens the record and feels a little low energy at first but the kookiness with the vocal effects makes it work and get stuck in your ear. 

“Tonight” brings an almost perfect vocal pairing together. Thomas Mars and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig’s summery vocals and energy match so well, it’s kind of hard to think the duo haven’t worked together in the past. It feels so natural, and the repetitive guitar riffs and syncopated percussion build up into a fabulous and playful chorus that makes it one of the best songs of the year.  

“After Midnight” provides a similar styled song but brings more Bankrupt! synths that kind of elevate it above some of the others on the record. “Identical,” which was released as a single back in 2021, closes out the album with another solid synth-pop rocker. 

 “The Only One” and “Artefact” are fine, classic Phoenix songs that don’t particularly stand out but get the job done. “Winter Solstice” sounds interesting and adds some balance to the record but falls a little flat, as does “All Eyes on Me” as a dance track that’s a little too slow or contrived to work fully and feels the most like the more poppy, kind of corny aspects of Ti Amo that turned me off of their 2017 release a little bit.  

Overall though, it’s a good, balanced record that’s easy to listen to beginning to end. It doesn’t reach the heights of 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix or 2000’s United, but does enough to make me worth your while, especially after a five-year break between records.

Asphalt Meadows – Death Cab for Cutie ★★★½

2022Asphalt MeadowsDeath Cab For Cutie★★★½65RockAlternative Rock

Death Cab For Cutie has been in the post-prime of their career for over a decade. After the peaks of Transatlanticism and Plans, the band started to sound more polished and commercial, leaning more into pop mixing and radio rock tropes than the indie, more organic style they started with. 

It’s a natural progression most bands have when they reach a certain level of mainstream popularity and a certain age. After all, stories of childhood experiences, lost love, innocence and coming of age tend to sound and feel a lot different coming from a 20 year old compared to someone in their 40s. There has to be that balance, when you’re older, of being grounded in the reality of your current situation while still reminiscing about the old days, or a pivot to new themes altogether before everything gets stale and feels like your treading water. 

For Death Cab, and especially after Thank You For Today in 2018, I was starting to feel that was going to be that case. Sure, the band could still put out a good song or two every record, and Ben Gibbard could create some fun imagery over a memorable guitar or piano riff, but I feared that the charm would be more in the nostalgia of listening to a band that used to be great versus something found within the new music itself. 

With that mindset, I went into my first listen of Asphalt Meadows with pretty low expectations, and kind of glossed over it without paying too much attention. But after a few revisits, the album’s grown on me quite a bit. It doesn’t just sound like Death Cab making songs, there’s an energy and a little bit of freshness to it that helps pick it up, mixed with some of the cuteness and wonder from before. 

Compared to the mostly flat, uninspired Thank You For Today, Gibbard sounds like he’s really enjoying his time here. And while the guitar work and musical direction still is fast paced and a bit more rocky like on Thank You, the songs actually go somewhere and build, and the  musical effects and production add that needed color that breathes some life into the record. The revitalized vocals, stronger hooks and musical wonderment really go a long way to recapturing the feelings of the past but with a new overall arrangement. 

Varying dynamics and layers are the key to what unlocks the record’s potential. The opening track “I Don’t Know How I Survive” brings airy, echoing effects in the verses that contrast really well with the fuzzy, dense guitars of the chorus and bridge.  Screeching guitars provide the contrast on “Roman Candles.” Faster songs like  “Here to Forever” — my favorite on the record — “I Miss Strangers” and the title track have a few softer moments within them and contrast overall with the slower tracks on the album like “Rand McNally” and “Fragments From the Decade.”

There are still some hiccups, for sure.  Overall, the guitar work is still a little basic compared to the band’s heyday (and same goes for some of Ben’s lyrics), but they get the job done. The spoken word poetry and lyrics on “Foxglove Through The Clearcut” are something new, but didn’t quite do it for me, although I do love the song’s chorus, and the loud buildup with the crashing cymbals and heavy guitar chords and solo are really reminiscent of the high marks on older tracks like “Tiny Vessels.”

“I’ll Never Give Up On You” is a bit stoic and out of place, and definitely doesn’t work as a finale. I think leaving it off and ending on “Fragments From the Decade” would have been more fitting sonically and thematically. 

It’s nearly impossible for a band well into their third decade together to continually recapture what drew you in originally when you were young, and when the band was experimenting and inspired to get started. But still bringing the energy, the familiar sounds and writing good hooks goes a long way to bring back some of that warm, fuzzy nostalgia. It’s not Transatlanticism, but it doesn’t have to be to be highly enjoyable.

Blue Rev – Alvvays ★★★½

2022Blue RevAlvvays★★★½68RockIndie PopDeam Pop

Blue Rev on the surface has everything you’d look for in an Alvvays album. It’s composed of 14 cute dream pop songs that mix in a bit of indie rock energy. There are some fun guitar runs, some big choruses, some atmospheric bridge sections and Molly Rankin’s vocals are warm and welcoming, as always. There’s something comforting about the band’s somewhat predictable style and consistent musicianship.  

But Blue Rev sounds almost too perfectly crafted to be what an Alvvays album is meant to be, which takes away from some of the charm or organic originality that was there on past records. The production elements feel really deliberate and professional sounding, making the instrumental mixing overall is a little flat in dynamics and closer to a shoegaze fuzz than the lighter, dreamy mix on Alvvay’s first two records. 

The band also doesn’t show as much individuality across the different musical lines. You get a few songs like “After the Earthquake” and “Pressed” that give you dueling guitar riffs or a quick drum beat, but for the most part everything feels like it’s working in unison. And Rankin’s vocals — usually front and center in the past — get a little buried behind the mix on tracks like “Belinda Says,” which, although it is my favorite track on the record, takes some of that bedroom-pop intimacy away. 

Almost every song here is good and the band stays true to themselves in spirit and overall sound, so the album’s a triumph. But the bunch of tracks as a whole is lacking the top-level, memorable moments and some of those smaller elements that their best songs in the past brought, making the whole experience a little underwhelming in comparison. 

A Light For Attracting Attention – The Smile ★★★★

2022A Light For Attracting AttentionThe Smile★★★★77RockAlternative Rock

The Smile is the closest we’ve gotten to a Thom Yorke side project actually sounding like a real Radiohead record.

His vocals on Eraser obviously sounded like Radiohead, but the songs didn’t have the same range or rock energy. Atoms for Piece and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes felt too sparse and a bit too mechanical. 2019’s Anima, of course, got Yorke as close to achieving his goal of creating a true electronic and house-based record. While it’s likely his most fully-formed record, it’s the farthest from Radiohead’s rock roots. 

With the help of Johnny Greenwood’s guitar work and compositions,  A Light For Attracting Attention has that alternative rock edge with the lush, orchestral elements that make some of Radiohead’s songs the most beautiful and creative in the genre. Additionally, Tom Skinner’s percussion work brings post-punk, math and prog elements that feel both familiar to fans but distinct enough from Radiohead drummer Philip Selway’s style that it isn’t mimicry.

Across 13 songs and what feels like a quick 53 minutes, The Smile offers a combination of gentle, emotional pieces, songs that are eerie and put you in a trance, and tracks that just rock.

There’s the more rhythmic tracks, usually with a hypnotic bass or guitar riff that goes on and on over a grooving drum beat, like “The Opposite,” “The Smoke,” and “Thin Thing.” Then there’s the more classically artistic and melodic tracks — “Pana-vision,” “Feel In The Knowledge,” “Open the Floodgates” — that have some pretty piano or acoustic lines, atmospheric electronics and symphonic strings and horns in their buildups. And finally, there’s a set of quick rock tracks with rapid, repetitive drumbeats, building dissonance and harmonies — “A Hairdryer,” “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” and “You Will Never Work In Television Again.”

The guitar work and drums feel like Radiohead songs that would have been on Amnesiac, or maybe a King of Limbs-era B-side like “These are My Twisted Words” or “A Staircase.” The piano and electronics are more in line with Hail To The Thief and Eraser-era pieces, while the sting work of course reminds of A Moon Shaped Pool. It may not technically be a Radiohead record, and doesn’t have the grand scale or weight you’d expect from one, but it’s probably the next best thing you could ask for, something that’s intricate enough to keep your attention but straightforward enough to come back to again and again. 

For the first time – Black Country, New Road ★★★★

2021For The First TimeBlack Country, New Road★★★★82RockAlternative RockPost Rock

For The First Time, the debut album from For  Black Country, New Road, is a strange, disjointed but highly engaging record that really hits hard at some points musically and lyrically. 

The band combines punk and post-rock guitar and drum elements with Eastern European-sounding string and saxophone melodies and math rock leaning rhythms which, when paired with Isaac Wood’s oddly energetic, dramatic, poetic and sarcastic vocals, created this edgy, dark, personal and somewhat manic aura throughout the album. He puts out a great vocal performance that mixes spoken word and raw singing with lyrics that are incredibly vivid, emotional and surprisingly catchy. 

The 40 minute album has only six tracks, which means each song is long, dense, moves through different sections and instrument mixes. Because of that, it isn’t always an easy listen. Some songs that seemingly start off sounding pretty normal intentionally break down slowly and become unhinged, with noisy bursts of energy or shouting, which I love but isn’t the most accessible for everyone. 

Oddly enough, the two best tracks are the longest and the shortest. The almost 10-minute long “Sunglasses” starts a bit softer and relaxed, before devolving into a chaotic, pounding mix of horns, guitars and yelling that makes you forget where the song even started in a really rewarding way. Then “Track X” follows up as a really subtle, emotional ballad that follows a repeated, gentle guitar riff, with some playful staccato saxophone and violin work mixed in as a texture. The soft, synthetic keyboard notes added above the harmonies during the chorus are a beautiful resolution that matches the story Wood is telling through the lyrics.