Every month, Uproxx cultural critic Steven Hyden makes an unranked list of his favorite music-related items released during this period — songs, albums, books, films, you name it.
1. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
This may strike some as hyperbole but I don’t care because it’s true: As strong as the other Big Thief albums are, they feel like rough drafts for what they’ve finally achieved here. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You already feels like the kind of album that’s destined to be handed down from generation to generation, like Automatic For The People or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s music I know I will reach for on epic road trips or in the midst of profound grief. An all-timer. A masterpiece. They really did it this time.
Turns out recording in different places with different engineers — drummer James Krivchenia is listed as the album’s producer — had real impact on the music. The seething Old Testament sermonizing of “Sparrow” has heavy Catskills vibes. The sweeping country rock of “Red Moon” (featuring excellent fiddle playing by Mat Davidson, among the small handful of non-band members appearing on the album) carries with it the dust of the Arizona desert. The stupendous “Simulation Swarm” is classic ’70s L.A. soft rock with one of the best guitar solos on any Big Thief album. The gorgeous title track evinces the restraint and simplicity endemic to their work with long-time producer Dom Monks on the previous records. But honestly, every song here is terrific, which is a minor miracle for a band that sought out to (in guitarist Buck Meek’s words) “lose our minds a bit.”
2. Gang Of Youths, Angel In Realtime
For frontman and singer-songwriter Dave Le’aupepe, Angel In Realtime is nothing less than an act of transfiguration, an attempt to bring back his father — who passed in 2018 at the age of 80 — in the form of impossibly monumental tunes that integrate a kitchen’s sink worth of sounds: chamber pop, U.K. garage, Britpop, hip-hop, and indigenous music native to his family’s Samoan and Māori cultures. Over that music, Le’aupepe opens up the innermost sanctum of his life via lyrics that spin a dense web of autobiography, cultural criticism, self-laceration, and sports references. At times, he adopts his father’s perspective; in other moments, he wonders how he’ll move on without him. It’s so personal that as a listener you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on something you shouldn’t. But then the insistent, driving music inevitably pulls you back into the fray. If Angel In Realtime is not ultimately remembered as the best album of 2022 — though it is certainly in the running for that distinction for what is already stacking up to be a year loaded with potential all-timers — it might very well end up being the most album. There is a lot to chew on here.
3. Animal Collective, Time Skiffs
I don’t know if this record will reach listeners beyond their cult of devotees, but it certainly sounds like an attempt by the animals to leave the wilderness. After two difficult (though in my estimation underrated) records, Time Skiffs is the sequel to Merriweather Post Pavilion that many fans probably would have wanted a decade ago. What do I mean by that? Let’s start with the pair of songs that open the album. They are both bottom-heavy, harmony-rich, and immediate indie-pop songs with grabby choruses in the vein of “My Girls” and “Summertime Girls.” The basslines are slippery and the synths are warm and zippy. It’s pretty much as close to “normal” as Animal Collective gets, and it’s remarkable how much of Time Skiffs colors within those very same lines. As the album unfolds, tracks like “Walker” and “We Go Back” amble along at the same amiable mid-tempo pace. Animal Collective’s music no longer emulates the sonic meltdowns of Brian Wilson’s most drugged-out Smile outtakes. Time Skiffs signals the beginning of their Full House period.
4. Black Country New Road, Ants From Up Here
Are we in the midst of a mid-aughts indie rock revival? I’m not just talking about Animal Collective’s comeback. There is also a growing corps of younger bands who grew up on the expansive sounds of that period — when it was standard to have a half-dozen people in your line-up and nearly as many words in your band name — which until recently seemed to be out of fashion. Take this British band, who emerged last year with their debut, For The First Time, that was lumped in with the crop of ascendent post-punk acts with jagged guitars and talky lead singers. But on this new Ants From Up There, they change course, openly embracing the indie-orchestral sound of grandiose throwbacks like Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise. It’s a surprising and entirely arresting shift that has resulted in one of early 2022’s buzziest indie records. Though it also comes with the news from last month that singer/guitarist Isaac Wood has exited the band. Will a Phil Collins figure emerge to replace this band’s departed Peter Gabriel? We shall see.
5. String Machine, Hallelujah Hell Yeah
This Pittsburgh band has a lower profile at the moment than Black Country, New Road, but they might ultimately have a more stable future. Their just-released new album, Hallelujah Hell Yeah, also evokes the earnest emotionalism and large-band arrangements of the mid-aughts. But whereas BCNR’s music often takes on a dark, sinister edge, Hallelujah Hell Yeah is full of sunny melodies and insistent hooks. At just 27 minutes, it’s also the kind of album that you feel compelled to spin again immediately once it’s over. I suspect that Hallelujah Hell Yeah will be a word of mouth hit as the year unfolds.
6. The War On Drugs, Live in St. Paul, Feb. 15-16
Having seen the band more than a half-dozen times over the course of a decade — and after digging deep into their bootlegs — I am confident in declaring that they have never played better than they are right now. The shows in St. Paul found them in an enviable sweet spot — the performances were focused and powerful, and the camaraderie between the band and the audience was funny and celebratory. Along with the “Against The Wind” bust out, the birthday show was distinguished by a pizza being delivered to Adam on stage, which he then gifted to the band’s lighting director. That was after an epic balloon drop during the set’s cathartic high point, “Under The Pressure.” It all felt simultaneously tight and loose. Like The E Street Band, each member of The War On Drugs now has a recognizable persona — Hartley is the stoic consigliere situated to Granduciel’s immediate right, drummer Charlie Hall is the kimono-clad showman, keyboardist Robbie Bennett is the swaying creator of synth-y moods, multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and Jon Natchez are the invaluable utility fielders, and new touring musician Eliza Hardy Jones is the Patti Scialfa figure.
7. Kurt Vile, “Like Exploding Stones”
Since I’m talking about The War On Drugs, I must also mention that a new Kurt Vile record, (Watch My Moves), is set to drop in April. This is the first single, and it’s a perfect slice of mid-period KV — a slow-motion reverie that drifts in like a THC-fueled dream and yet never overstays its welcome. There’s also that awesome part when Kurt drawls, “Welcome to the KV horror drive-in movie marathon.” Hell yeah. We can’t wait to dive into the rest of the record.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.