As with most years—all but one, actually (likely you can guess which)—we commemorated another year around the sun with letterpress cards for friends and family.
Sometimes we directly link words and image, and there’s not a total disconnect this year, celebrating in both strength and freedom and resilience—all of which I think we’ve collectively come to prize as much-needed attributes in this world. But also, just as important—community, friendship, fellowship.
And Taylor, obviously.
Pan as you may, critics, Midnights remains one of our favorite albums of last year and our favorite Taylor Swift record to date. So we pull inspiration there too.
Our friend, Colby, at Post Rider Press here in Richmond, lovingly hand-pressed the cards, as she did last year. You can visit her site and see a little more about her and Carl, her 1950s Chandler + Price platen printing press, in a post we made last year.
But, mainly, Happy New Year, friends—we wish you the very best in it and beyond. Or, more concisely, in the words of a wise young woman:
Everything you lose is a step you take So make the friendship bracelets Take the moment and taste it You’ve got no reason to be afraid
I know, I know—we usually wait until early in the following year to do our best albums of the previous year and kick them off with a huge diatribe against the establishment ‘best of’ lists that come out in November when there’s a whole nother month or two of the year to go in which artists can and do still release albums and reviewers should just pump their breaks because the year’s not over yet, man.
But we prepared a little more than usual this year, so here we go—our favorite albums of the year and a playlist to commemorate those albums, on the penultimate day of that year.
I will say before we dive in, easily two of our favorite albums of the year—SZA’s + Little Simz’—came out mid-December and are noticeably absent from every single best albums list I’ve seen.
And, though we usually keep the albums to a top ten in the illustration, we couldn’t cut beyond these top eleven—they’re just all too good. After whose first eleven tracks from our favorite albums, our playlist features songs from an additional eleven favorite albums beyond that top set, and we encourage you to check them all out—each of the two sets is in order of release, not top to bottom.
Here are those top eleven in that same order:
Dawn FM • The Weeknd (Los Angeles, CA, USA; Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Our year-end lists don’t usually include so many stadium-packing, Super Bowl halftime-playing artists, but it would totally disingenuous to pretend like this year’s albums from Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and this one from The Weeknd weren’t some of our favorites. Dawn FM came out a mere week after the start of 2022, and its still burned into our imagination—a testament to its staying power. First, the beginning-to-end commitment Abel Tesfaye (AKA The Weeknd) has to the concept is impressive—maybe best described as a retro FM radio show wrapped around an eerie death cult meets LOST? Maybe? And his and Daniel Lopatin’s (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never) unabashed tribute to the synth-soaked 80’s is so weirdly delightful and and edgy and fresh, it somehow totally sidesteps being derivative. We just love this album, mainstream or no.
Tahliah Barnet—Twigs—released CAPRISONGS as a mixtape a week after Dawn FM debuted (The Weeknd actually guests on the lead single, “Tears in the Club”) but its one of our favorite releases of the year, whatever you call it. Co-host of KCRW’s Morning Becomes EclecticNovena Carmel said as much at its release, but, with the little conversational in-betweens and bits of voicemail, you feel like you’re hanging out with Twigs and her very cool friends while receiving a healthy dose of affirmational before attending a long-awaited dance party again after the shit years we’ve all had. Plus the songs are exceptional and dynamic.
We’d been excited to hear more from twenty-something Londoner Abubakar Baker Shariff-Farr—better known as Bakar—since we’d heard the poppy single “Hell N Back” in 2019. But no way did we expect such an all-over-the-place-in-the-best-possible-way debut studio album like Nobody’s Home. He writes and sings and raps and shouts about everything from the experiences of being the kid of immigrants to personal and systematic injustice to just being someone who sometimes feels like he’s always fucking up. And he does it with such skill and over such beautifully written music—this was a favorite as soon as we heard its 14 tracks.
We first came across Charlotte Adigéry while researching for a mixtape series we did with Whalebone Magazine in 2020 to amplify Black voices. Adigéry was listed in what was then called Blackbandcamp (now widened to include non-musical artists and called the Black Artist Database) We fell in love with her EP at the time, Zandoli—which, it turns out, was released by the duo under Adigéry’s name—featuring the track “High Lights” on the mix that accompanied the article. The debut full-length from Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul as a duo in name as well, Tropical Highlights, retains and cultivates the duo’s sharp wit and tongue-in-cheek commentary on life and brings it together with even more impressive glitchy, weirdly beautiful electro pop. The track we included in the mix fit better between Bakar and Beyoncé, but here’s a lyric video for one of our favorite tracks that exemplifies the sharpness of the duo’s witticism and writing.
Renaissance • Beyoncé (Los Angeles, CA; The Hamptons, NY; wherever she wants)
I don’t know if we need to justify this pick to anyone in the world or say much of anything, do we? It’s the disco dance party we all needed and Beyoncé at her very best, with clear references to popular culture’s past—even down the Studio 54 nod with the cover art—that honor more than borrow, pushing the music to a new level with clear joy and no filter whatsoever. It’s a beautiful dance party that celebrates life, love, and freedom—near perfect. Our only worry—how could she possibly top this? I guess we’ll find out….
We’ve loved these guys since we first heard them on the 2014 edition of NPR’s beloved SXSW mixes leading up to the music and arts fest. We caught them at Coachella the following year and they’ve been one of our favorite bands ever since. This album follows 2020’s Free Love, a beautiful and slightly more sombre studio album from the duo that they spoke of as their first truly collaborative one (with the previous two studio albums, singer Amelia Meath largely stuck to lyrics and singing while Nick Sanborn [“Sandy”] kept to music and production). No Rules Sandy is the product of three weeks spent in a rented house in Los Angeles, when the duo was meant to be presenting at the 2022 Grammys and spend time with friends, all of which was canceled due to the Omicron spike early this year. So they found themselves trapped in a house on a strange pandemic “vacation” with all their recording equipment. The result—No Rules Sandy—is self-described as an experiment in improvisation and it frees up the sound Sylvan Esso has curated over the years, growing it into something new and exciting. We can’t wait to see what comes next.
Sudan Archives has been pushing boundaries and defying genres from the very beginning of her career in 2017. Natural Brown Prom Queen expands on her debut studio album—2019’s Athena (which made our 2019 list of favorite albums)—both in terms of what she’s saying and how she’s saying it. A theme that’s connecting many of the best albums this year, this sophomore release seems more free and filter-less than previous work, and that’s saying a lot given the boundary-pushing Sudan’s since she came on the scene. Beautifully sprawling, Natural Brown Prom Queen is Sudan’s best and most diverse work to date, allowing the multi-instrumentalist’s musical chops and engaging lyricism to truly shine—undeniably one of the best albums of the year.
The debut album from this favorite Leicester band nearly made our top albums last year (partially because we really wanted to illustrate the album cover, which shows our exact car driving into the ocean). This year’s follow-up to Life’s a Beach shows a welcome growth in depth and self-reflection from frontman and primary (very prolific) songwriter Murray Matravers that compliments the “happy/sad” levity the band’s music brought to the fore earlier in their career, both with last year’s debut studio album and the mixtape that preceded it. And, thankfully, this year’s album also features a Volvo 240—this time, seemingly safely parked curbside.
Midnights • Taylor Swift ( Nashville, TN, USA [or, again, wherever she wants)
Easily the “least cool” pick, again, we’d be totally lying if we didn’t list this as one of our favorite albums of the year. Critically panned for not being as “mature” as her previous two award-winning studio albums—evermore and folklore—it’s honestly the only Taylor Swift album we’ve ever truly loved and likely the one we’ve listened to the most in the studio this year. But don’t let me ramble on—here’s a more succinct review by our longtime 11-year-old friend, Bea, back in LA around the time of release:
“So good! Haven’t gotten to listen to the whole album yet, but from what I’ve heard so far, probably “Lavender Haze,” “Maroon,” “Mastermind,” and “Snow on the Beach” are my favorite songs so far. Since 1989 was really the first album that got me into Taylor Swift, it’s still my favorite, but Midnights is my second fave, for sure! Me and my friends have been talking about it, and it really is one of her best. It was DEFINITELY a comeback from folklore and evermore, which I definitely didn’t like. But overall, I really liked it!”
PS—the “3AM Edition” of Midnights features an additional five tracks co-produced by The National‘s Aaron Dessner (who co-produced those two earlier critically acclaimed albums) that Swift surprised fans with at 3AM Eastern the night of the album release (midnight PST). The extra track on that edition, “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is straight-up a National song with Taylor singing (and the other Dessner twin and National drummer Bryan Devendorf playing on it).
PPS—this video for standout track “Anti-Hero”—directed by Swift herself (seriously, how can h8ers call her talentless‽)—is truly awesome.
As previously mentioned, SZA’s sophomore studio album—which just spent a second week at the top of the Billboard 200 Chart (the first album by a Black female artist to land at No. 1 in its first two weeks since Beyoncé’s self-titled in 2013)—is absent from nearly every best albums list this year. And that’s just silly. Her 2017 debut, Ctrl, blew us all out of the water with its vulnerable truthfulness and sheer skill in musicianship, proving her one of the most influential artists in recent years. SOS keeps that raw truth and grows in confidence and self-acceptance, both in subject matter and in song-writing. Even if it’s absent from year-end lists, it’s awesome to see the breadth of success for such a talented artist.
The only artist to appear on this and last year’s favorite albums list (so close, easy life), Simz has long been a favorite of ours and we’re thankful to have been turned on to her so early in her career. Her follow-up to 2021’s Mercury Prize-winning Sometimes I Might Be Introvert has the productive London artist again collaborating with producer Inflo (the core of the musical collective, SAULT, who somehow released five albums this year, all on November 1st) with wonderful results, creating riveting, often cinematically dramatic soundscapes over which the wordsmith waxes extremely poetic. Simz remains one of the most skilled lyricists and rapper of the day and this new album provides even more evidence of that fact.
And our other favorite albums of the year, each well-worth a listen:
Present Tense • Yumi Zouma
Smart pop from a favorite New Zealand quartet with slight musical references to past decades without being derivative.
Wet Leg • Wet Leg
Fresh new voices from a Isle of Wight/London duo that touches on indie and post-punk but creates a whole new genre with this debut.
Inside Problems • Andrew Bird
Likely our favorite studio album from this talented whistling, fiddling Angeleno, full of quick-witted pop gems—we just want to, like, hang out with him at a party.
Life is Yours • Foals
Life-affirming post(?)-pandemic party rock from this venerable English (now) trio.
Gemini Rights • Steve Lacy
A beautifully varied sophomore studio album from LA’s funkiest guitarist, multi-instrumentalist song-writer, this one almost made our top 11 a top 12.
Cool It Down • Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Seriously did not expect this album—their first since 2013—to feel as compelling and relevant as it does.
Fossora • Björk
Not our favorite album of the year, or the most accessible, but easily the best, in our opinion—it’s somehow less like listening to music than it is like listening to and attempting to decipher an alien language from the future, in the best possible way.
Earth Worship • Rubblebucket
Weird, beautiful, hippie art pop from this talented Brooklyn band.
Alpha Zulu • Phoenix
As Apple Music put it, Phoenix’s most “Phoenix” album, recorded during the pandemic in Paris’ Lourve Palace—fun, escapist pop. Woo-ha, singing hallelujah.
Redcar les adorables étoiles (prologue) • Christine and the Queens/Redcar
A sprawling, shifting concept album of pop-rock epics—largely sung in French—that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around but love.
This year was a stupendous year for music that felt largely creatively driven by a pent-up energy we all experienced these past couple years in the pandemic—what a beautiful silver lining that we have so many talented, creative artists who were able to capture that energy and channel it, sharing it with the world for us all to appreciate.
Happy 2022, friends. Stay safe and enjoy every day 2023.
It’s been a minute, but we’ve gotten back into the mixtape game. We won’t over-introduce, but there’s a ton of good music out there right now and we felt the need to return to the art of the mixtape—a self-serving snapshot in time that we love to enjoy ourselves and share with others.
So here’s to that, and thanks to all the artists for sharing their talents and creativity with the world. (And here’s a Spotify link for those who prefer that to Apple.)
First and most importantly, happy Twosday, everybody. This suddenly seemingly auspicious day seemed a perfect time to finally share our best albums of last year.
These projects tend to take us a while for a number of reasons, as we’ve said here before. First, although we keep a running list of favorite albums throughout the year, we like to wait until at least close to the end of the year to actually finalize the list. I know, most artists make sure they release work well before the end of the year to account for things like awards and the fact that most writers feel pressure to release their lists in, say, early October, but that’s one of the huge pluses about doing something entirely for yourself—no outside pressure and no one else to please besides yourself.
The other major reason is that we want the list itself to be both an audio and a visual project, pairing a playlist of tracks from those favorite albums from the year with an illustration we’ve created that pulls inspiration from each of the albums’ cover art.
So it takes a minute. Especially this year, as we worked to perfect the more detailed illustrations of each of these beautiful albums covers—we really wanted to respect all of the work that went into the original covers and didn’t want to rush our interpretation of them.
But, now, without further ado, on 2.22.22, we give you our favorite albums of the year, along with a playlist chronicling them and a hand-done, vector-based illustration we created of each of the album covers combined into a single piece.
The playlist—which you can find below and over on our Mixcloud page or via the Mixcloud app along with past mixtapes + playlists—starts with ten tracks from our top ten 2021 albums arranged by order of release; then we end the mix with five of our runners up, again, in order of release.
Below, original art for each along with some brief words on why we love these albums, then our runners up, and some other great albums that were released in 2021—a superb year for excellent music.
1. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams – Jan29, 2021This one kicks off our mix because it was released earliest in the year amongst our favorite full-lengths, but it’s also easily the best album of the year and the best debut for an artist in a long time. If you haven’t heard this, drop everything right now and listen to it. Parks also just released a new single a few weeks back that we’re entirely in love with and that has us very excited for whatever follows Collapsed in Sunbeams.
2. Middle Kids – Today We’re The Greatest– Mar19, 2021We were lucky enough to catch the Sydney band Middle Kids back at a small club in Los Angeles at one of their first shows in the States. They’ve dropped a few singles since their excellent debut in 2019, but this is their first proper subsequent album and it displays growth in every aspect from the band. It’s one of those albums that, the first time I listened to it, I was like “THIS is the best song on the album.” Then I’d think the exact same thing on the next song and the next and the next. Love this band and can’t wait to see them play again soon.
3. Flock of Dimes – Head of Roses – Apr2, 2021
Front-woman Jenn Wasner has one of those voices—vocally, instrumentally, and in terms of her song-writing—that imbues the work with an unmistakable personality, be with her usually more traditionally guitar-driver duo Wye Oak, or with Flock of Dimes, a project that started out as more of a solo experimental project but has evolved into a new, entirely fleshed out entity. Like Arlo Parks, Flock of Dimes just released a couple of excellent new upbeat singles a couple weeks ago that are definitely worth checking out.
4. Bantug – 12 Songs About Loneliness – May14, 2021Easily one of the most overlooked independent pop artists in recent years—I have no idea why more people aren’t playing Bantug and shouting about this album from the rooftops (looking at you, KCRW). This Atlanta-born, Nashville-based artist announced last year that they were going to focus more on producing which, A) bums me out a little if it means less original work from them, but B) excites me if it means getting some Bantug-infused tunes from other artists.
5. Laura Mvula – Pink Noise – Jul20, 2021
English artist Laura Mvula has been on my radar for a while, but nothing really broke through for me until Pink Noise, where she pulls from all sounds fun, be it hyper-melodic, disco-infused funk or slickly produced, beat-driven pop—this album is all about bringing joy and hitting the dance floor. I love how Mvula throws somber and humble out the window with this work and focuses instead on what brings her and the listener happiness.
6. Clairo – Sling – Jul16, 2021
After Clairo’s debut full-length—which made our 2019 list—this is not at all what I expected. Subtle, understated, often quiet—it’s one of those albums that makes you really lean in and pay attention. But once I did, I couldn’t stop listening to it. And once you dive into it—especially the instrumentation, with it’s intricate bass lines and funky organs—it’s one of those albums that, for us at least, becomes something that’s played in the house or studio at least weekly. Dare I say a new classic?
7. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert – Sep3, 2021
AGHH, Little Simz—she is so, so good. Her work, from the beginning, has imbued the very best of hip hop, jazz, spoken word—everything she brings into her music becomes her own in the most impressive, beautiful way. After some old-school, bedroom-recorded EPs and introspection born of the lock-downs, she poured creative energy into a sparkling studio LP and we love it. If you ever get a chance to see her live, do it. Also, this one was totally our favorite cover to illustrate.
8. Lala Lala – I Want the Door to Open – Oct8, 2021
I’m honestly late to the scene with Lala Lala—the stage name for Chicago’s Lillie West—but I absolutely love her unique voice and vision for this music. Strange, experimental, but with pop sensibilities and melodic roots serving as the backbone for the album and every track on it. Her unmistakably distinct vocals pull you in, the song-writing and shifts in atmosphere keep the music ever-intriguing and enjoyable.
9. James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart – Oct8, 2021
I’ve tried for years, very unsuccessfully, to not like James Blake. Be it his voice that I tell myself should be annoyingly pitched and grating but I love for some reason, or his glitchy electronic instrumentation that I secretly wish I had written, or the fact that my wife and friends constantly make fun of me for liking the guy that wrote “You’re Beautiful” (he didn’t; that was James Blunt), something in me doesn’t want to love James Blake. Alas, I love James Blake, and especially this album. Plus, SZA, so.
10. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life – Oct22, 2021
NYC art punks (I’m sure they hate that term—if anyone reading this knows them and they want something else there, let me know) have had our ear since we first heard the buzz about them, but this album’s one of their best yet. Another LP that just showcases the four-piece’s growth since they formed a decade plus back, the depth of influence and how they channel that into original work is both impressive and fun as hell to listen to. If I could be a fourth as cool as these guys…well, I’d be a lot cooler.
Then runners up:
LUWTEN – Draft – Apr30, 2021
Arty, organic, vocal-driven electronic pop from the Dutch band’s sophomore album. We interviewed front-woman Tessa Douwstra back in 2017 if you’re up for read.
easy life – life’s a beach – May28, 2021
Funky, fun pop that leans hip hop, this debut full-length from longtime favorite Leiscester group almost, almost, almost made the top ten (as did many of these)…partly because it would have meant we’d get to illustrate our exact Volvo driving into the ocean. We may still, just because.
Cautious Clay – Deadpan Love – Jun25, 2012
Another excellent debut album that I think a lot of people have been eagerly awaiting for a long time, Clay—AKA Joshua Karpeh—brings maturity and subtlety in tone to his first full-length.
Efterklang – Windflowers – Oct8, 2012
Danish band Efterklang has been a favorite of mine since I first discovered them through the weekly newsletter from NYC’s Other Music (RIP) back in the early aughts. Through the years, they’ve evolved from glitchy choral electronic to melodic pop to a more subdued song-writing. This album—their seventh studio LP—builds from their last one and infuses a little more upbeat pop into the mix.
Self-Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure – Oct22, 2021
Self-Esteem is the aptly named musical project from English multi-instrumentalist and front-woman, Rebecca Lucy Taylor, who’s spoken extensively about the stage name being a nod to the evolution of her own personal confidence in self. This album is full of deep-yet-approachable, inspirational lyricism and dance floor bangers and it is excellent.
Last week, via our vegan food account on Instagram, we posted a picture of a vegan challah bread that we made. The bread—a first for us—not only came out looking beautiful, it also tasted amazing.
All of which we owe to the mad culinary skills of our friend Roxy Storm back in LA, who developed the recipe. Roxy—picture below with an enormous and outstanding quilt she knit—developed the recipe and was kind enough to share it with us.
Kinder still, she agreed to have us share it here after some friends asked on IG. So here it is, written out by Roxy. And feel free to follow Roxy’s knitting and make inquiries over at Roxy Storm Fiber Art on IG. Thanks again, Roxy!
Oh, and if anyone’s wondering, the beautiful stained glass trivet was made by Debbie Bean, another talented Los Angeles artist.
As with many things these days, our 2021/2022 winter holiday and New Year cards took on a little more of the personal tone than in past years, and rightly so, we’d say. Hold those you love close, friends.
The cards were conceived of, designed, and hand-lettered by us; printed in Richmond, Virginia by Post Rider Press, whom we can’t recommend more—take a look at a recent Instagram post we made to find more about the press and see a little of the process.
It’s been a minute, but we realize we haven’t posted on these pages about the past two interview-mixtapes we’d done in partnership with Whalebone Magazine.
The most recent mix is a more rootsy route than we usually take with our musical explorations and it’s accompanied by an interview with Thanya Iyer, a talented artist out of Montreal. You can find the mix below and our MixCloud page and the interview over at Whalebone.
The other in the series is more along the lines of our usual sounds and features an interview with longtime friend to the studio, multidisciplinary artist Jess Joy. Ditto on that one too—mix below and over at MixCloud; interview on the virtual pages of Whalebone Magazine.
If you’ve got any desire to read/listen to more we’ve done with Whalebone over the years, you can find most of them on their site; and if you want to go way back on the mixes, you can catch the last 48 we’ve put together—going all the way back to 2016—over at our main MixCloud scroll. You can link those up to Sonos and other streamers to as you like.
More new soon, promises.
Photo illustrations above and below by us. Photos above: Charlie Hickey – artist; Jonah Yano – Will Jivcoff; Maple Glider – Bridgette Winten; Thanya Iyer – Bucky Illingwoth; Alice Phoebe Lou – artist; Noname – The Hollywood Bowl; Le Ren – Mariah Hamilton; serpentwithfeet – Braylen Dion. Photos below: Still Woozy – artist; Tierra Whack – Genius; Jess Joy – Fanny Chu Photography; Laura Mvula – Danny Kasirye; Elder Island – Nic Kane; Luwten – Eddo-Hartmann; Easy Life: artist.
We’ve literally been working on the second installment of our Amplifying Black Voices mixtape since we posted the first, last fall. Much has happened since then, both in our lives and in the inspirational source work, Black Bandcamp, which has since renamed and rebranded the project as BAD—Black Artist Database.
Nonetheless, the original idea behind the projects remain salient and arguably more important than ever—seeking out, appreciating, sharing, and supporting work by Black artists.
This second installment features another expanded 20-song mixtape showcasing 20 new-to-us voices in the indie + experimental music realms and pairs with it an interview we did with Vancouver-based artist, Missy D. Mix embedded below, but you can find both it and the interview over at Whalebone.
But we wanted to make public our annual best albums list. We created and posted the associated mixtape way back in January—as we’re wont to do—but only now made some time to create some art for it, so here it is:
The mix features a song from each of our top ten albums of the year in order of release, then five bonus tracks from our runners up, also in order of release. Here’s the mix track list for anyone interested.