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Staff Picks: The Year in Music

21 December 2022, 09:30

Best Fit editors and writers discuss their lesser-known personal favourite records of the year, from Rich Ruth to Otoboke Beaver and more.

1
Sausalito by Divorce From New York

Though the timid and breathy calm in the first moments of its opening title track hinted towards a kind of New Age ambience, a gentle breakbeat soon asserted that Sausalito would move with a rhythmic bite. In fact, as Divorce From New York, producer Alvaro Granda created one of the most galvanising records of the year, hypnotically ticking while keeping fans of house, jazz, disco all happy.

The project began when the Spanish producer started playing with a sampler for his role in the atmospheric duo Reykjavik606, cutting up and reshaping his favourite snippets of jazz tracks into the fittingly titled debut This Ain’t Jazz No More last year. While still a little off-kilter and heady in a late night glow, as on the frankly naughty "Resoli", its follow-up is packed with more enticing melodies. "Last Ray of Sunset" is built around the sweet vocal sample at its core, which its tsst-tsst disco hiss and deep, throbbing bass hit home. With the help of fellow San Sabastian musician Sara Zozaya, the UK jazz-inspired "Holly Grove" feels like its biggest single. But for all its details pleasant to the ear, Granda is a beatmaker first, and Sausalito is an album to make you move. JOHN BELL

Listen to/buy Sausalito on Bandcamp

2
I Survived, It's Over by Rich Ruth

You wait for ages for a seamless blend of ambient soundscapes, spiritual jazz and tools derived from the headier hinterlands of adventurous rhythm music. And in 2022, two came along almost at once.

The untamed, often thrillingly wild crescendos and carefully calibrated balance between soothing calm and electrifying near-chaos of I Survived, It’s Over meant that this stunning third album from Nashville-based musician and composer Rich Ruth provided even more habit-forming catnip for open-eared listeners than its equally essential, self-titled counterpart from Revelators Sound System (featuring Hiss Golden Messenger songwriter MC Taylor in one of the most successful musicianly diversions from the day job in recent memory).

Nodding at times towards heavy-psych fuzz guitar meltdowns of Maggot Brain-era Funkadelic, the maximalist orchestral swells of Kamasi Washington, the subtle build-ups of ambient minimalism ala Brian Eno or Jon Hassell and the cosmos-straddling spiritual jazz explorations perfected by the legendary likes of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, I Survived, It's Over sounded startlingly loose and thrillingly vibrant – alive and very much in the moment - for an album painstakingly assembled by Ruth from remote contributions by a large cast of contributors.

Ruth explained that the aim of the album was to create sounds that matched his internal turmoil in the aftermath of being robbed at gunpoint outside his Nashville home. He certainly succeeded: at its cathartic extremes, I Survived, It’s Over pulled at the leash of control and order as furiously as a mid-60s John Coltrane record. That there was an equal amount of peaceful, healing tranquillity here as well elevated the album far above the marginalised pursuits of noisily abrasive free jazz. An unusually joyous listening experience for an album rooted in such deep trauma, these unhurriedly evolving, soothingly lush yet electrifyingly untamed epics rendered their esoteric references into a potent, often superhumanly beautiful noise. The result was a transcendental triumph that provided nourishing moments of serenity whilst also excelling in cooking up a racket fit for soundtracking a year that offered no shortage of anxiety, chaos and calamity. JANNE OINONEN

Listen to/buyI Survived, It's Over on Bandcamp

3
Bucked Up Space by Nik Colk Void

Nik Colk Void’s excellent Bucked Up Space is my favourite electronic album of the past god knows how long. I’ve come to accept that many fantastic artists operating in a similar space are perhaps not best judged by their album output, but if I’m honest I find clubs a bit daunting and I just fucking love albums. For me, this one hangs together better as a front to back listen than any electronic record in recent memory, and that’s exactly how I like things.

It shares much of the kinetic thrust and textural finesse that make Factory Floor – of whom Void is a member – so thrilling, but has her visit spaces that are both sparser and more unnerving (“Romke” – what?), as well as more instantly gratifying (“FlatTime” – wow!) than I’ve heard in her work previously.

My advice would be to take it on the road. I’ve spent many an enjoyable hour at home with it on my turntable, but it really came in to its own when I gave it some air, letting it angrily propel me around a commute, or soundtrack scenery whizzing by as I rested my head on a train window. This thing moves, and is itself pretty moving. THOMAS HANNAN


Listen to/buy Bucked Up Space on Bandcamp

4
Super Champion by Otoboke Beaver

Katy Perry move aside: one of the year’s brightest, most gleeful releases also happens to be one of its noisiest. Japanese four-piece Otoboke Beaver drives deeper from punk into pure noise; skewering commercialism (‘Where Did You Buy Such a Nice Watch You Are Wearing Now’,), patronising men (‘Dirty Old Fart Is Waiting for My Reaction’) and romantic relationships (‘I Checked Your Cellphone’) with a vicious energy, like a young Dead Kennedys from Kyōto. Its eighteen songs often last barely a minute a piece, but startling things tend to come in quick bursts. The band plays with a furious, careering energy which confirms once again that great pop songs don’t need handclaps and a rubbery bassline; they just need four women chanting about salad. Half of the songs are in Japanese but the unhinged grin Accorinrin delivers them through transcends language and aims for the heart of city-dwellers so numbed by politeness and professionalism that they’re actually one bad frappuccino away from turning feral themselves. At just 22 minutes, Super Champion is either a small ask of your time, or a chance to play it three times an hour. LIAM INSCOE-JONES

Listen to/buy Super Champion on Bandcamp

5
Devil for the Fire by Vundabar

You can miss me with that post-2015 jangle-pop bullshit – cough, Rolling Blackouts Thunder, cough. But man alive, Vundabar are jangling it up in a refreshingly complex manner. The new album from the Massachusetts band may not be the same glistening, pep-in-the-step gem as 202'0s Either Light. But Devil for the Fire sees a mature-sounding, more emotionally nuanced Vundabar emerging from the wreckage of a pandemic slightly devious and with a considerably more textured array of emotion and raucous sound. KYLE KOHNER

Listen to/buy Devil for the Fire on Bandcamp

6
Take Hold Of Your Promise! by Gently Tender

“It’s a new beginning”, sings Sam Fryer on "Love All The Population", his distinctive vocals conveying a hopeful optimism reinforced by the upbeat instrumentation of Gently Tender bandmates Will Doyle, Pete Mayhew, Celia Archer and Adam Brown.

And that it certainly is. Including members of beloved indie outfits Palma Violets and The Big Moon, Gently Tender’s debut album, Take Hold of Your Promise!, is a cohesive and considered record that was 5 years in the making. Underpinned by themes of self-reflection, past anxieties, and embracing vulnerability, the 12-strong track list meanders from brooding contemplation ("Home Anymore") to swelling horn sections and soaring harmonies ("Dead is Dead"; "True Colours").

True to their name, Gently Tender tread softly when necessary, taking time to envelop the listener in expansive arrangements before delivering a soulful sucker-punch. Choral elements and organ-esque keys invoke a sense of the ecclesiastic, yet there’s no hint of preachiness or piety: this is gospel music for the non-religious.

Take Hold of Your Promise! is an exhale of an album; it captures the particular lightness only felt after a weight has been lifted, the kind of emotional catharsis that comes after a cry . Akin to the Japanese practice of kintsugi - whereby broken pottery is repaired using gold – Gently Tender’s debut acknowledges the fault lines of the past and imbues them with new value, ultimately celebrating beauty found through breakage. DAISY CARTER

Listen to/buy Take Hold Of Your Promise! on Bandcamp

7
ISTHISFORREAL? by The Koreatown Oddity

2022 has felt like the most surreal of years yet. Reckoning with reality and its intricacies and quirks has become the norm, and The Koreatown Oddity – aka Dominique Purdy – took this idea and ran wild-eyed with it.

For the LA-based artist, ISTHISFORREAL? was a chance to unfurl those moments of questioning within his own life through loping, barren bars and his observatory wit. Through the nearing-psychedelic use of skits in the form of a talk show where he announces he is in fact a British man (the matrix-distorting is immediate), TKO’s humour is in full force, particularly on the cringe-inducing “MISOPHONIA LOVE". But his ability to take boundaries, deconstruct them, and reimagine them within his own vision - a feat done not once but twice including on 2020's Little Dominique's Nosebleed - the space he occupies is truly his own, and while this isn't an album filled with hooks or the most bombastic beats, it is instead filled with a flare that reeks of originality, moments that shine, and a drawl that explains even the heftiest of topics with inimitable calm. STEVEN LOFTIN

Listen to/buy ISTHISFORREAL? on Bandcamp

8
Janky Star by Grace Ives

Grace Ives’ Janky Star is a little sonic universe of jangly sound–underwater reverb, chirping birds, playful synths. Coming in under thirty minutes, it says just enough; every vulnerable thought is developed to the point of confession, and nothing more. Ives sings on the chorus of “On the Ground”, “I wanna feel proud” – a child expressing her innermost desires without the inhibition learned in adulthood. As pop music generally takes a turn towards the whimsical, Janky Star poses a question: what if something dreadfully earnest was disguised as a Fisher-Price piano, drum machine, eighties bass record?

Ives’ bare bones style still somehow feels maximal. Unexpected electronic sounds interspersed with her athletic vocal performance create anticipatory space in standout singles “Angel of Business” and “Lullaby.” On songs like “Shelly”, Ives explores multiple layers of emotions that both create and contradict each other. Production from Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Yves Tumor) enhances the emotion inherent in this delicate conflict, sparkling moments of perfect marriage between sonic and lyrical space. This record feels determined in its refusal of certainty; Ives sings on “Angel of Business” “You know where there’s a will” but never finishes the phrase. Janky Star is uncompromising and honest, with the confidence of a musician who’s willing to say what she means. AMAYA LIM

Listen to Janky Star on Spotify

9
Estrela Acesa by Sessa

Sessa sings and things get better. Even when it’s grim, and gloomy, and ending - he acknowledges it and counteroffers with pleasure. "The world is about to end, come closer, be my lover" are the opening verses of his second album Estrela Acesa ("Lit Star").

The world has certainly changed since 2019, when he released his debut Grandeza, still he doesn’t seem to tap into the existential dread of putting out a second album. It feels like the natural progression; Sessa going deeper and reassuring the soundscape he’s been forging for himself.

Quiet and sensual singing remains, so does the unmistakably-Brazilian acoustic guitar and greek-Siren harmonies of his band. Minimalism is however taken to a new level and the arrangements of Estrela Acesa don’t fall short of his country’s greatest Tom Jobim and Arthur Verocai. It discloses Sessa as one of the finest composers of his generation.

Themes love and pain, separation, music and ache. Knowing Portuguese is not a must; the questions he asks, he answers instrumentally. Marcelo Cabral’s bass lines stand out and unfold the record’s inner direction, while Biel Basile’s percussion makes you feel like you’ve never been lonely.

It’s hard not to throw the words beautiful, sensual, sad and natural in here, even when these words have different meanings to different people. Sessa marches towards everything human. Except he doesn’t march. He feels, celebrates, whispers and plays. CHRIS ALMEIDA

Listen to/buy Estrela Acesa on Bandcamp

10
Souvenirs by Pale Blue Eyes

A band building a following based on the quality of their transcendent live shows and the resulting breathless word of mouth? Pretty old school you might say, but that’s exactly what Pale Blue Eyes have been busy doing over the last 18 months of post pandemic rejuvenation.

Yes, we’re dealing with a familiar post-punk-shoegaze melange, but the weird thing? It’s as fresh as a daisy and, maybe unexpectedly, pretty joyful stuff. Not something you automatically associate with those often dark genre manoeuvres, but rather there’s a clear love of life at the heart of Pale Blue Eyes’ music that just can’t help spilling out. We’re not talking shallow escapism, but rather seeing the beauty despite, or even to counter, the cold hand of reality.

Tired indie rock tropes are skilfully circumvented and instead what makes PBE so seductive is their apparently innate ability to lock into supple, yet tightly coiled, motorik grooves. The result is music that painlessly burrows deep into your cranium and refuses to leave.

Thankfully their long awaited debut album Souvenirs already felt like a career to date greatest hits summary that happily left you wanting more.

And the best news? They’re just getting started. Experience them now before they ascend to the kind of venues where you can no longer see the whites of their eyes. SIMON HEAVISIDES

Listen to/buy Souvenirs on Bandcamp

11
DON'T BLAME THE WILD ONE! by ena mori

Across its 12 bombastic tracks, ena mori brings some of this year’s catchiest synthpop since MUNA’s self-titled album. While highly sophisticated works that make a statement on what’s happening today are still time-worthy, sometimes all you need is a good pop album. Beyoncé achieved the same with Renaissance, a record that put fun first, and mori’s DON’T BLAME THE WILD ONE is an absolute joy to listen to. Its sparkling choruses doesn’t mean it’s devoid of intelligence, though — she swaps gender roles on “KING OF THE NIGHT”, tackles loneliness on “SOS”, and touches on gun violence on “OH, BLEEDING HEARTS?”. The pace slows down as well for atmospheric, lovely tracks like “WHITE ROOM” and “A HIGHER PLACE,” but also leaves room for jaunty, playful tunes like “TALK! TALK!” and “RUNAWAY HOLIDAY.” At its heart, DBTWO is a feel-good listen that guarantees some placements on one’s best songs of the year list. SAM FRANZINI

Listen to DON'T BLAME THE WILD ONE! on Spotify

12
Another Life by Nadine Khouri

A smouldering meditation on change and transformation, this second album from British-Lebanese artist Nadine Khouri is a velvet-lined, dusk-till-dawn listen that moves in lush and gentle waves.

Journeying from the streets of old Beirut to her new home of Marseilles, via London and the spirit world, Khouri’s songs are as searching as they are soothing. Her creamy alto lends a nocturnal intimacy to stories that touch on other lives lived, other lives desired and lives no longer in reach. Never overdone, her choice phrasing is almost conversational at times. Even at her rawest, as on the bristling first single “Vertigo”, she sounds more confiding than confronting. The tension is thrilling.

Produced once again by John Parish (PJ Harvey, Aldous Harding), Another Life is full of spacious arrangements that lean towards minimalism but somehow still feel generously textured. You can’t help but get swept up in the balmy, sweet melody of the “Keep On Pushing These Walls” (dedicated to Khouri’s musical hero Lhasa de Sela) and the woozy, saxophone-lit storytelling of “Lo-fi Moon”. A wise and wonderful return. ALAN PEDDER

Listen to/buy Another Life on Bandcamp

13
Who Are We? by Al-Qasar

Well, who are they? Al-Qasar describe themselves as "Arabian Fuzz", which is correct in a loose sense, because they're that and so much more. Al-Qasar are a rock band, pure and simple.

Who Are We? – the Paris-based band's debut album – is a collection of varied, diverse and intense songs that traverse the wrong sides of the rock 'n' roll tracks as if they own the whole damn place. Al-Qasar deal in standard rock, garage rock, punk, grunge, post-punk - even heavy metal. There's a couple of notable guests on the album too, in US hardcore punk legend Jello Biafra (of Dead Kennedys fame) and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo.

Who Are We? is a fierce, fiery record that's utterly essential – not just for the winter of 2022, but for as long as rock music's heart beats. ROSS HORTON

Listen to/buy Who Are We? on Bandcamp

14
Life In Plastic by Tom Aspaul

Determination is Tom Aspaul’s middle name. Now on his second self-released album, it’s been a whirlwind year for the self-built artist as he continues to up his brand and rise in the music world – he's even hosting the music during the commonwealth games in his home town of Birmingham. After 2020’s Black Country Disco, Aspaul moved on to a creative vision with less restriction and released Life In Plastic in May.

Dancing from genre to genre, Aspaul takes influence from all over the pop-sphere. There’s the sounds of deep sun-soaked freedom with “Thessaloniki,” UK garage on “What Is Real Anymore?” and the classic synth-based squeaky-clean pop production showcased on tracks like “Kiss It” and “Statues.” In fact, the whole album is incredibly Euro-pop, but with it being such a broad genre it’s hard to pin down where Aspaul moves to from track to track.

There are moments of reflection, of lust, of happiness and love, and even a track inspired by Aspaul’s icon Nicole Scherzinger (“Listen 2 Nicole”) where he creates lyrics with wordplay on Scherzinger’s song titles. It’s a party from start to finish, and that party just so happens to take place on the Eurovision main stage. DAVID COBBALD

Listen to/buy Life In Plastic on Bandcamp

15
April Mixtape 2 by Snow Strippers

Let’s face it 2021 and 2022 haven’t exactly been the hedonistic “summer of love” events that we were all anticipating when we were losing our minds indoors in 2020; buying up all the toilet roll and spending hours on zoom trying to maintain some semblance of connection in isolation. What it has been instead is a cacophony of anxiety; health anxiety, a rapidly declining sense of financial security, and the kind of social anxiety that would make Eeyore feel like Casanova. It was only natural that out of this, we’d see music that typifies the fallout from 18 months of people wanting to break out of their confines and truly lose themselves. Enter Snow Strippers.

Not much is known about Snow Strippers – they’re a duo who hail from the US, releasing music on their own label, Nice Bass Bro, that it seems like they’re the only artists signed to. Info doesn’t really seem to matter when the music reflects electronic chaos in the way theirs does. One of many projects they released this year, the group embody the pixellated frisson of our collective “freedom” on April Mixtape 2. Across 16 tracks, Snow Strippers deliver an urgent declaration of liberation from a consciousness stuck between the internet and human connection. An overblown symphony of distorted synths, analog drum sounds and inviting vocals, songs like "Sabotage" reflect society’s panic at being thrust into an uncertain new world, while "Sad World" and "Don’t Make Sense Anymore" unveil a sense of digital disillusionment amongst an tangible underlying groove. Snow Strippers’ April Mixtape 2 presents us with a world on fire and asks “What if we danced through the flames until the whole thing burns down?” MITCH STEVENS

Listen toApril Mixtape 2 on Spotify

16
Tína Blóm by Sucks To Be You, Nigel

Young Reykjavík punks Sucks To Be You Nigel absolutely have the silliest band name around right now but the four-piece have been piecing together some of the fiercest, most inventive and raw music of the past few years. Nothing has touched their debut Tína Blóm for me in terms of potential.

The record – composed, rehearsed, and recorded in the same garage - actually came out at the end of last year but there's little chance anyone outside of Iceland heard it until well into 2022. A standout performance at Iceland Airwaves showcased a band playing with the expectations of the live space, and in singer Silja Rún Högnadóttir, they have an explosion of energy and bemusement somewhere on the spectrum between Siouxie Sioux and Amy Taylor.

The record’s tongue-in-cheek fuck-yous might be core to the band’s punk credentials but are undercut by genuine musicianship: sometimes it comes with a Dead Kennedys snarl, at others it’s messing around with Slint-flecked time signatures. PAUL BRIDGEWATER

Listen to/buy on Tína Blóm on Bandcamp

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