Do you want to know something scary? We’re more than a quarter of the way through this decade.
And we can all agree it’s been a belter so far. As the West continues to be in permanent Crisis Mode – from populism to COVID to Ukraine to the cost of living crisis (not forgetting the death of the planet) – there has been little respite from the horror. Apart from the sort that can be found in music.
That said, it’s becoming an annual tradition to bemoan the outside world in these roundups and sadly, the music industry isn’t entirely a safe haven.
Even if it’s been a marginal improvement on the preceding years (acts could actually tour, for one thing), there is still much cause for despair.
Compounding the fact that artists make negligible money from their output (because, y,know, streaming) are the increased bills, felt equally as keenly by venues, musicians, and stage crew. Inevitably, these price hikes must fall at the feet of the consumer who are being hit by huge jumps in their monthly bills…you see the problem?
So, at the risk of becoming repetitive in these end-of-year features, it’s been another scary year in which we also lost another tranche of musical heroes.
In no particular order: Taylor Hawkins, Christine McVie, Olivia Newton-John, Meat Loaf, Ronnie Spector, Wilko Johnson, Gary Brooker, Mark Lanegan, Jordan, Vangelis, Coolio, Andy Fletcher, Paul Ryder, Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Levene, Mimi Parker and many others have been taken from us, some after their time but most before. We doff our caps and raise a glass to them all.
And yet. The shadow of the pandemic was cast aside with no little gusto and the joy of human contact continued throughout the year. A hugely successful festival season (one for the ages) bestrode a UK summer largely devoid of rain (just don’t think about why).
The Mercury Prize nominations list was astoundingly competitive, even if the ceremony had to be pushed back to a time when National Mourning wasn’t compulsory. And there was some corking music.
After teasing for years and cultivating his live show (which must be seen to be believed), south London vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Wu-Lu finally released his debut album, with the rattling Blame a highlight. Fusing lilting piano and a jungle-beat march, its moody textures provoked an emotional response.
Thus Love arrived fully formed; their sneering, slippery In Tandem an instant classic. Channelling The Cult and INXS, the trio sound like the 1980s but in a good way, and can be expected to have a good 2023.
Elsewhere, Dubliners Sprints, fuelled by their need to create music which ‘matters and that means something’, were good to their word with Literary Mind, an anthem about championing queer love and the freedom that comes with the acceptance, via a spindly riff offset by boisterous drums. The sort of charging indie rock song that only comes along every so often.
While certain more established acts floundered (Muse seem to be on a quest to find out what exactly is beyond parody), others flourished.
Bloc Party rolled back the years with the sublime If We Get Caught, a piece of runaway, romantic indie-rock that is their niche and, while The Car may have had some detractors on the internet (sigh), no-one can deny that the Bowie-meets-Beatles Body Paint sits comfortably alongside Arctic Monkeys’ best work.
Speaking of Bowie, Ride leader Andy Bell has been on a purple patch inspired by the prolificity of the great man. Taken from what was probably his 102nd release since Beady Eye disbanded, Something Like Love is perhaps the best song the former Oasis man has put his name to.
Unbearably melancholic, the warming guitar and fuzzy textures combined to create a unique feeling of instant nostalgia, as did Jamie T’s St. George Wharf Tower, as the former indie urchin ruminated movingly at his life so far atop the ‘Vauxhall high-rise’ for a tender track from an artist with a remarkable hit rate.
With a euphoric, oscillating synth, Kae Tempest’s More Pressure was the highlight on an album full of them. As they rattle off observations on life, one is minded that the shimmering electronics suit them and should be further explored.
In contrast, David Holmes needs no such encouragement; It’s Over, If We Run Out Of Love, co-written by Noel Gallagher, uses the verse from his 2019 single This Is The Place but then goes somewhere else entirely, a place (ho-ho) of sparkles and grandiose glam.
The most-appropriately named track of the year was the lead single from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ welcome return. Karen O’s epically contemptuous vocals perfectly fit the glistening, gargantuan-scale synth-rock, as she does indeed sound like she and her band are Spitting Off The Edge Of The World.
Glorious as always, while Jon Hopkins continues to lay down serious slabs of emotional electronica, specifically Deep In The Glowing Heart (on which he’s accompanied by ANNA) which spirits the listener up into the night clouds before bringing them back.
Not to be found wanting, there was a strong showing from artists with less miles on the clock. Big Joanie’s Back Home was a fine album all round, but the rollicking In My Arms was the best of the lot; like a lost 50s classic, brimming with optimism and sugar-sweet vocals.
Fontaines D.C. continued their upward trajectory, not only by playing every festival over the summer (in their defence, they were making up for lost time), but with their excellent third album Skinty Fia.
Grian Chatten somehow gets even surlier on standout single Roman Holiday, the scraped guitar licks and moody atmospherics perfectly highlighting their maturity on this ode to the evil weed.
Under the guise of Future Utopia, producer Fraser T Smith released Queen L; a snapping, bristling piece of house music which would sit comfortably on a Defected collection, while Soul Glo went back to the late 1980s with Jump! (Or Get Jumped!) ((by the future)), albeit fusing hardcore and hair metal breathlessly and almost inaudibly. Ideal if you get out of bed the wrong side and want to take it out on the world.
On the other hand, if you prefer to be coaxed into life, then Lydia Wears A Cross by Julia Jacklin would be a better fit. A smouldering slow-burner, the Australian singer-songwriter looks back on her childhood but with added hindsight that only adulthood can provide, while Katy J Pearson had equal momentum on Talk Over Town; a crisp, clear slice of winsome pop with sweet country pangs, like being aboard a yacht on a dazzling blue ocean.
All great songs, but none were able to make the Live4ever Top 10, which just indicates what a strong year it’s been. Loyle Carner deserved all the plaudits he received for diversifying his sound while maintaining his lyrical potency, and the moody, trip-hop Hate was perhaps the best representation of the new sound.
Supplemented by an eerie vocal chop and bristling percussion, Carner acknowledges the relationship between fear and hate in his personal life and society more broadly to further establish himself as one of the UK’s vital voices.
If that all sounds a bit intense, then Struck By Lightning (The Chats) should lighten the mood. Daft, short, stabbing pub-punk is the Australian’s stock-in-trade and while the subject may be inane, the music is certainly not.
Fall First doesn’t know what it wants to be but is all the better for it. Across its four minutes, Santigold’s latest gem crams in shimmering disco, electro-funk, Peter Hook-bass, a simple high-pitched motif and her punk roots. Full of life and energy, it’s a reminder of her singular talent, and matched (energy-wise) only by The Lounge Society with Remains.
Their fine debut was worth the wait and, with guitars that could splinter the sky, the snappy, Wurlitzer-hurricane of a track is youthful anxiety set to music.
Long a queen of baroque pop, Cate Le Bon’s languid Remembering Me skims on a self-assured groove which bubbles and swells, while focusing on the notion of legacy and sentimentalism. Hiding fundamental questions beneath futuristic yet stretched electronica, it’s her very own Ashes To Ashes.
Meanwhile, 2022’s first big surprise was The Smile’s You Will Never Work In Television Again. Finally a side-project from Radiohead that sounded like their 1990s stuff (shoot us), Thom Yorke’s incandescently pissed-off vocals reminded us not to be fooled by the falsetto; the rage still burns. Jonny Greenwood’s dusky, hurried guitar and Tom Skinner’s jazz drums work in simpatico and, even if the album was more sombre than this, appetites were justifiably whetted.
As they had been across 2021 by Yard Act. Much was expected from the Leeds mob and they duly delivered with The Overload. Where most of the album went for the head with hilarious results, 100% Endurance went for the heart. Oddly moving and positive, given it employs the idea of an alien invasion conveying the message of beauty in the futility of human existence, it even included some harp. Arguably the band of the year…
…Were it not for two girls from the Isle of Wight. Like Yard Act, the hopes of indie music were placed on Wet Leg’s shoulders but they carried the mantle with ease, charming everyone in their wake.
Too Late Now was their own distinctive bit of dream pop (without fuzz) featuring simple bass, chiming guitar and insecure delivery before an outro of forward propulsion. It closed their fine debut album, but in truth any of its tracks could have been included in our list.
Unjustly passed over, London rockers Crows’ Slowly Separate has universal themes, that of the mundanity and frustration of working in unfulfilling roles. Yet James Cox’s cavernous vocals, the nauseous rock (in a good way) and the marauding drums are far from ordinary; the sound of 21st century apprehension as delivered with dense, venomous ferocity.
The pounding beat and instrumental repetition conveys the toll that unacknowledged work takes, while the key change inspires rebellion. Uncomfortable but essential listening.
If that raucous rock is all too much for you, then our song of the year should be more up your street. Angel Olsen’s sound has expanded and contracted in turn across her career, all with a sense of conviction, but on All The Good Times her sumptuous voice belies her intent, heart-achingly resigned as she sings, ‘I can’t tell you I’m trying when there’s nothing left here to try for’, across a slow, mournful, country brood before the song bursts into a canter with triumphant horns, as Olsen cleanses herself in coming to terms with her queerness.
Both heart-breaking and life-affirming, and a worthy contender in another traumatic year. It’s difficult when times are as tough as these, but try to remember: ‘Life is too short not to have fun; we are only here for a short while.’ – Coolio.