To start: last time, I called CHVRCHES Screen Violence my album of the summer, and if I had one complaint, it was that it felt a little shorter than their last few albums. Well, they released a bonus version in late October that included three new songs, all of which are stellar. Especially “Killer”, which might be my favorite song on the album now? “How Not to Drown” is hard to top, though.
Moving on from my favorite album on the last list, to my favorite album on this list: it’s Mercurial World by Magdalena Bay, which has been living in my brain for the past month or two. Every song is just great, layers upon layers of hooks and melodies and interesting things. It’s almost hard for me to pick three songs off of it, but “Hysterical Us” is probably my favorite track (I absolutely love that main piano riff). And “Secrets (Your Fire)” feels like the perfect introductory single to the album (I think it was the first track of theirs that I heard, although I’m not positive), plus it’s such a smooth jam. A third pick from the album was difficult, since there are so many good songs. Just by how much I enjoy the songs, I’d probably go with album closer “The Beginning”, but I think part of what I like about it is how it works as a final track, so I left it as a surprise. After that, it was a tough call between the title track, “Chaeri”, “You Lose!”... but I ended up going with “Dawning of the Season”.
There was some strong competition for the title of my favorite album from this cycle, though. First of the runners-up, we have T.I.A.P.F.Y.H., the first full album by artist Left at London aka Nat Puff. It’s an incredibly strong, seven-track experience, led off with the 10-minute epic “Pills & Good Advice”. Every minute of that track is fantastic, just a non-stop journey of high-points that never feels like it drags. However, I felt like it was better to let it stand on its own as a part of the album, so I picked the fourth-through-sixth songs on the album, it’s own stretch of indie pop greatness between the album’s two title tracks. Writing about good music is difficult, and I feel like I’m just throwing around synonyms for “great”, so for more a concrete note: Puff’s writing, from instrumental riffs to words, is incredibly polished and deliberate, and there are so many lines that immediately stuck in my mind in a way that most music does not. For one example, the opening lines of the chorus to “It Could Be Better” hit a sort type of anxiety that I’ve felt but never been able to put to words (“And I wanna know the future/Don’t tell me how it ends though”), and stuck in my mind for days after I first heard it.
I’ve included Oh Wonder on several of my playlists, but I don’t know that I’ve ever written about them for a full piece? Their first two albums in particular (their 2015 self-titled debut and 2017’s Ultralife) were regular rainy day soundtracks for me for a while, hitting a nice, cool, sort of dark and chilled out vibe. But 22 Break brings that energy, plus an added fire to the album. The band is a real-life couple, and wrote the album in part to work through marriage problems that nearly led to a divorce, and like… I don’t want to say that going through extremely rough circumstances automatically makes for good music or anything, but Oh Wonder at least has figured out how to channel that energy in productive ways. The sort of smooth moodiness from their earlier stuff is there, but with a more melancholic tinge given the subject matter, and with bursts of emotion that really stand out in contrast, especially in the crescendo of the finale, “Twenty Fourteen”. And yeah, that maybe breaks the image of laid-back coolness I attributed to their earlier stuff, but then again, they also still have the time for sax solos and other fun stuff too.
And third and finally among my album runners-up, we have Chloe Moriondo with Blood Bunny. A lot of the time with younger artists, I feel a little bit of disconnect with their songwriting; it’s not always a quality thing, just that I’m far enough outside of high school and being a teenager that lyrics that are too wrapped up in that experience can feel alienating at times. But there’s something else in Chloe’s writing, this maturity or wisdom or something, where it feels more universal; and when she does more explicitly use her younger frame of reference, it’s more likely to take me back to where I was mentally at that age instead of put me off. Other times, when the lyrics are less explicitly about youth, you’ll get something fun and weird; for example, “I Eat Boys”, a bedroom pop song with darkly funny lyrics to clash with the music, a mix that I just adore. And on the whole, she has this great command of emotional build in her songs, with so many songs that build to these big, shoutable, fist-pumping crescendos (including my other two inclusions, “I Want To Be With You” and “Strawberry Blonde”, but also “Manta Rays” and closing track “What If It Doesn’t End Well”).
I liked Walk the Moon’s HEIGHTS, but after how much I liked their previous two records (What If Nothing even made the best albums section of 2017 playlist, and Talking Is Hard almost certainly would have made my list if I were doing these articles back in 2014) and how much I enjoyed the pre-release singles… I don’t know. There’s nothing on it that was bad or anything, it just didn’t feel like it cohered into anything better than “some great singles, plus some other good but less remarkable songs”, and I’m not really sure I have an explanation for why I feel that way. There are a few moments sonically where it seemed closer to their self-titled not-quite-debut album, and that might be about where I’d rate the album as a whole? But maybe I’ll come back to it later and it’ll all click. But yeah, the first half of the record (which is loaded with most of those early singles) is strong, so picking a few songs from it to be on this playlist was easy (even removing the two I included on the summer playlist from consideration).
One of my favorite bands in the middle of the 2010s was Magic Man, but I haven’t had the opportunity to mention them as much here because they broke up a few years ago after not releasing anything new for a while (although if you haven’t heard them before, definitely check them out!). However, two members of that band (Sam Vanderhoop Lee and Justine Bowe) recently decided to form a new project, hex gf, and I’ve loved their first single “Knife”. I’m hoping for more good things from them in the future!
As a follow-up to something from my last playlist article: during this time, I did finally get around to playing the 3D platformer game that Snail’s House provided the music for, Tasomachi: Beyond the Twilight. In case you missed it, I even wrote a recommendation for it here. I do really like the soundtrack for that game and will occasionally throw it on, but I ultimately went with some other recent Snail’s House songs here because they’re a little more suited to a playlist.
Although, while we’re on the subject of “Video Games with Music by Artists I’ve Mentioned Here Before”, Michelle Zauzner of Japanese Breakfast provided the score for Sable, a 3D Platformer/Adventure game that I’ve been enjoying recently. I might write a full thing on it someday, although I won’t be adding any tracks here, as most of the soundtrack doesn’t work as well on a playlist.* But either way, starting that game was a fun excuse to go back and listen to “Be Sweet” a few more times.
*And while I’m mentioning video game soundtracks, Toby Fox has again done great work with the music for Deltarune Chapter 2, as well as the game as a whole being great. It’s much less clear if any writing on that will be coming here, though, especially in the near future. Maybe upon the full game release?
I wasn’t really in the mood for a hyperpop Christmas song when it released in 2020, but I finally checked out 100 Gecs’ “sympathy 4 the grinch” back in December, and yeah, it works much better than I expected! Of course it’s goofy and funny on top of being just a solid pop song, that’s kind of their schtick, but it’s also goofy in a way that doesn’t feel trite or sarcastic or dismissive like I was worried it might. Like, it could (and should) easily replace “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” in the Christmas canon, and the world would be instantly better for it. On a related note, their more recent songs are also great, especially the verse in “mememe” where Laura Les drops their signature vocal effects, which is… probably the only swerve that I wouldn’t have expected from the group at this point, but still sounds both good and distinctly “them”.
I kind of spent a few weeks in a deep “The Decemberists + The New Pornographers” hole, just relistening to both of their catalogs. I don’t know what it is, I like both bands, but I listen to them less “as part of a regular rotation” and more “just putting them on loop for a solid stretch of time every so often” (although usually they’re two separate detours, not one leading into the other). Anyway, it was in that stretch that I realized I hadn’t really given their newest albums (I’ll Be Your Girl and In the Morse Code of Break Lights, respectively) much attention, so I went back and listened to those for a while, and what do you know, they’re both solid records!
Sungazer is a musical group that includes Adam Neely, who makes some great videos on YouTube explaining interesting music and music theory topics. Of a similar vein, the band’s album Perihelion is a project built around complex and unusual rhythms and time signatures, but generally presented in a way that feels a little more pop-ish than what you’d normally get with such a niche topic. It’s a fun listen, and if you want some more info on it, Adam’s video on it is great, too.
As a longtime fan of Coldplay (dating all the way back to being a kid taking piano lessons in the 2000s and latching on to any musicians on the radio who prominently used it), I’ll always check out their new releases. Their later stuff doesn’t quite hit the highs of their initial run of albums, but there’s usually at least some interesting things. I was especially happy to see their newest record, Music of the Spheres, harken back to 2011’s Mylo Xyloto in multiple ways (I know that one was less well-received at the time, but I really connected with it and personally rank it up there with A Rush of Blood to the Head or Viva La Vida as their best). Spheres doesn’t quite reach that level, which isn’t terribly surprising; it’s a follow-up to a project that was a decade old, and a lot has changed since then. But they show that they can still make fun, ambitious pop music.
I picked up some used CDs on a trip to a small, nearby record store back in October, which is where the older Maïa Vidal, Drowners, and the Dum Dum Girls records come from (also I guess it also started that Decemberists detour, since I also picked up their live album We All Raise Our Voices to the Air there). It was a fun excuse to branch out a little and catch up on some things that I missed the first time around. Vidal’s You’re the Waves probably wound up being my favorite of the three.
Aurora’s music isn’t nearly as old, but a friend got me into it recently too, so I went through some of her back catalog and listened to that for a bit. I picked “The Seed” and “Dance on the Moon” to represent those, but there are a lot of other solid songs there. I also went with “Cure for Me”, which was a lead single for her 2022 album The Gods We Can Touch; I haven’t got a chance to listen to that as of this writing, but once I do, it seems like a decent shot to get another song on my next playlist.
Other albums that I enjoyed and which are represented here include: Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s side project An Evening with Silk Sonic and Gavin Turek’s MADAME GOLD, both of which are solid soul throwback projects. Blog-favorites Smallpools finally released their second album, Life in a Simulation, after six years, and I'm glad to have them back as well! And if you want hyperpop with a little bit more pop-punk influence, there’s fishmonger by underscores. I wasn’t as crazy about the albums they were on, but “transparent soul” and “Meet Me At Our Spot” are shockingly good pop songs, which is not something I ever expected to say about Willow Smith.
Outside of that, there are several 2022 releases featured here, but I left it to just songs that I was listening to prior to December 31. Bastille, the Wombats, and Aurora have already had albums come out in the new year, and will probably be back on my next list. There have been a few other early releases that I’ve enjoyed already as well, plus some older things that I’ve dug into since January started and really loved (see: Magdalena Bay’s back catalog). And of course, there’s sure to be more. I’m excited to see if Muna’s “Silk Chiffon” is a pre-release track or just a one-off collaboration, because I’m a big fan of it (along with most of their stuff). Jukebox the Ghost has been teasing a new album forever. While researching this piece, I noticed that Left at London already has an upcoming album listed for this year on Wikipedia (although who knows how reliable that is). So yeah, there’s already a lot to look forward to!
|Spike the Punch||Alex Lahey|
|I'm in Control (Throttle Remix)||AlunaGeorge|
|Meet Me at Our Spot||the Anxiety|
|Cure for Me||Aurora|
|Dance on the Moon||Aurora|
|No Bad Days||Bastille|
|New Shapes||Charli XCX feat. Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek|
|Ghost Stories||Cheat Codes with All Time Low|
|I Eat Boys||Chloe Moriondo|
|I Want to Be With You||Chloe Moriondo|
|Strawberry Blonde||Chloe Moriondo|
|Give Me the Highs||Chloe Tang|
|People of the Pride||Coldplay|
|My Universe||Coldplay & BTS|
|Once in My Life||the Decemberists|
|Everything Is Awful||the Decemberists|
|Luv, Hold Me Down||Drowners|
|In the Wake of You||Dum Dum Girls|
|Little Minx||Dum Dum Girls|
|SugarCrash!||ElyOtto feat. Kim Petras & Curtis Waters|
|So What||Gavin Turek|
|Cheers||Jukebox the Ghost|
|Ramona||Jukebox the Ghost|
|Future Starts Now||Kim Petras|
|River||the Knocks feat Parson James|
|Out of My Mind||Left at London|
|It Could Be Better||Left at London|
|Kudzu||Left at London|
|Dawning of the Season||Magdalena Bay|
|Secrets (Your Fire)||Magdalena Bay|
|Hysterical Us||Magdalena Bay|
|Mama (Told Me So)||Maïa Vidal|
|Everyone Sucks But You||Matt & Kim and K.Flay|
|Tell It to My Heart||Meduza feat. Hozier|
|Silk Chiffon||MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers|
|19||New Dialogue feat Little Hurt|
|Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile||the New Pornographers|
|Colossus of Rhodes||the New Pornographers|
|22 Break||Oh Wonder|
|Love Me Now||Oh Wonder|
|Twenty Fourteen||Oh Wonder|
|One Right Now||Post Malone & The Weeknd|
|Believe In Me||Robin Knaak|
|Fly As Me||Silk Sonic|
|Smokin Out the Window||Silk Sonic|
|life of the party||Smallpools|
|Rainbow Float||Snail's House|
|All These People||Sungazer|
|Kinko's field trip 2006||Underscores|
|Spoiled Little Brat||Underscores|
|I'm Good||Walk the Moon|
|Fire in Your House||Walk the Moon feat Johnny Clegg & Jesse Clegg|
|t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l||WILLOW feat. Travis Barker|
|If You Ever Leave I’m Coming With You||the Wombats|
|Lonely Machines||3OH!3 &100 gecs|
|Sympathy 4 the Grinch||100 gecs|