It took me way too long to put this list together, but at last here’s some of the music I enjoyed the most this year! Just a reminder, this is not me trying to be a music critic and round up the year in sound, it’s literally just some of the songs I really liked. And I put the songs in a sequence but not a ranked order.
Hope you enjoy these songs. Want to share the ones you liked? Get in touch!
“Heaven” by Grace Cummings
That voice! Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Grace Cummings picked a perfect name for her breakout album, “Storm Queen.” The powerful singing is what drew me in, but instead of just relying on the voice, Cummings knows how to make her songs sing, too, kind of like a folky Corin Tucker.
“Anti-hero” by Taylor Swift
I remember a moment years ago where an interviewer asked Taylor Swift, perhaps a bit more curtly than necessary, why couldn’t she write songs about something other than relationships. Well, the verse in “Anti-hero” about the daughter-in-law sure sounds like an answer.
“April” by Maria BC
Maria BC recorded their debut album “Hyaline” at their Oakland apartment, but in a way that didn’t make too much noise for their roommates. The result is great middle of the night music, ethereal and moody and beautiful all at once. “April” is a standout because of all the subtle sonic details that punctuate the unwavering and unnerving guitar sequence and striking vocals. It’s lonely music I can really connect to.
“Casual” by Chappell Roan
The graphic language in the chorus might throw some listeners off at first, but stick with it: “Casual” is a slow-burn “Satisfaction” for the 2020s, part angry kiss-off to a partner who wants all the benefits of coupling without any of the responsibilities, and part a realization from the singer that she deserves way more than she’s getting.
“Call it a European paradox” by Shabaka
Shabaka Hutchings can describe his stunning, meditative EP “Afrikan Culture” way better than I can: he said he wanted to create “a forest of sound where melodies and rhythms float in space and emerge in glimpses.” One moment you’re focused on the low strums of the kora, the next you’re drawn in by the Japanese flute known as the shakuhachi. Melodies come in and out like waves, and just when you think you’re catching onto a musical pattern, the wave recedes.
“Leave the Light On” by Johnny Orlando
There are so many electronic pop songs on my best-of list for the year, I don’t know who I am anymore. But I’m a sucker for a catchy song, and Johnny Orlando definitely came up with one here. “Leave the Light On” is the opening track on his debut album all the things that could go wrong, and it just never does.
“Cosmic Sigh” by Erin Rae
Not finding a lot to look forward to as we approach 2023? Maybe try this lovely song from Nashville singer-songwriter Erin Rae, who builds on her rootsy sound with swelling strings and a message that maybe, eventually, we’ll see that “a sudden hope is growing.” Her subtle, confident singing makes a pretty strong case.
“Collage” by Neal Francis
There’s a 70s vibe in the air around Neal Francis, right down to his throwback album covers. But there’s substance along with all that style, and does he ever know how to set a groove, especially on this Technicolor soul cover of Joe Walsh’s James Gang.
“Been To The Mountain” by Margo Price
Margo Price’s star has been rising for a while now, and the leadoff single from her album “Strays” may just launch that star as high as stars can go. Price has had to take a long and often challenging road to where she is now, and “Been To The Mountain” refers to some of those challenges: “So many seasons that I’ve been adrift/Sometimes I wonder if I even exist.” But then she adds “and I know that there’s more here than this.” This song, and its singer, are full of hard-won confidence and I love to hear it.
“No Reason” by Big Thief
Somehow the most prolific band of this young decade is also one of the biggest and one of the best. Big Thief’s “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” is as sprawling as the title suggests, full of left turns and experiments like the Beatles’ White Album and so many other great double albums. For me, one end of the album’s continuum is “Spud Infinity,” Adrienne Lenker’s very John Prine-ish tribute to the humble potato and its place in the cosmos; at the other end is “No Reason,” which is quiet and sweet and lovely and gets more lovely each time I hear it, and somehow the chorus is just begging for listeners to sing along even though the words are: “There is no reason to believe/No reason at all.”
“Haffmilch Holiday” by Decisive Pink
Decisive Pink is Angel Deradoorian and Kate NV, both of whom have made waves as solo artists but rightly figured they could do something special together. “Haffmilch Holiday” is their Kraftwerk and oat milk cappuccino-inspired meditation on finding a little quiet, “my own holiday,” around the chaos and busyness of the world.
“El Bueno Y El Malo” by Hermanos Gutiérrez
I just love moody guitar music, and this is some great moody guitar music. The title track from the latest work by brothers Alejandro and Estevan Gutiérrez takes inspiration from the great composers of Western movie soundtracks, only the mood is more middle-of-the-night, staring up at the stars and pondering.
“Porta” by Sharon Van Etten
Another year, another Sharon Van Etten track on my best-of list. It’s not my fault that she’s so consistently great! Musically, “Porta” continues down the synth-pop track Van Etten first explored on her 2019 album “Remind Me Tomorrow” (and expanded on in this year’s “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong”), plus some guitar that wouldn’t have been out of place on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Lyrically, it’s about trying to find a way forward, while knowing that depression is trying to slow her down and maybe even make her change course. She reminds herself, over and over, “Think straight. Get by.” Great advice from a great song.
“Happy Accident” by tomberlin
Sarah Beth Tomberlin was great when she was playing sadly beautiful acoustic songs by herself, but she’s stayed great while adding to her sound with each new release. “Happy Accident” puts her vocals front and center over a slow and steady Neil Young and Crazy Horse-style groove, and it works. Also: naming your potential breakout record “I don’t know who needs to hear this…” is kind of a genius move.
“Pressure In My Chest” by Indigo Sparke
This song has the catchiest chorus about an impending panic attack you’ll hear all year! But don’t sleep on the verses, as this standout from Indigo Sparke’s album “Hysteria” is as thoughtful as it is singable.
“Rolling Mills Are Burning Down” by Jake Xerxes Fussell
Playing very old songs authentically is a very hard thing to do well, but North Carolina-based singer/guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell pulls it off. “Rolling Mills Are Burning Down” is a traditional song that, in the wrong hands, could have turned into musical cosplay, a modern artist acting old-timey, singing about mills. But Fussell never once sounds out of time or place; his warm voice and gentle acoustic guitar, combined with lovely piano by album producer and Eleventh Dream Day guitarist Jim Elkington, sound timeless.
“Checking Out” by Divorce
If you liked the off-the-rails last verse of Taylor Swift’s “Anti-hero” as much as I did, well, here’s a whole song that’s even more sinister. It escalates really quickly, so quickly that you start rooting for the narrator as she learns “to love myself without a reason or a doubt” just in time to be shocked about how she learns it.
“Free Yourself” by Jessie Ware
I have made a point of never stepping on a dance floor outside of, like, two weddings, but even I have moved a little to this one. Over a relentlessly joyous disco riff and beat, English dance-popper Jessie Ware encourages us to figure out what we want and to go get it. Ideally while dancing.
Happy new year!