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Culture Choices 2022: Albums

Albums.
Photo courtesy of Erik Mclean via Unsplash (licensed under Unsplash License).

Culture Choices 2022 is an annual series by Roar’s Culture section in which staff writers select their favourite albums, films, books, and TV shows of the year.

Leo Benham: “Ants From Up There”- Black Country, New Road

When British post-rock outfit Black Country, New Road announced that their lead vocalist Isaac Wood was leaving the band just four days before the release of their latest album, “Ants From Up There”, fans (including myself) were worried for what was to come for them. The album, however, swept the underground post-punk scene by storm, infusing the originality and comfort of their debut, “For the First Time”, with a more full-bodied track-list which clocks in at just under an hour.

The creativity of the tracks is to be admired on many levels; their lyricism is especially notable. Titles like “Chaos Space Marine”, “Bread Song” and “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” are enough to foretell the ambition of the band’s songwriting. My personal favourite line of the album is the particularly avant-garde, “So clean your soup maker and breathe in your chicken, broccoli and everything”. There is a strong influence from similarly avant-garde indie bands of different eras: Arcade Fire and Slint to name a few, which the album’s minimal jazzy instrumentation often recalls. The horns and the strings are particularly prominent too, notably on the interlude-like tracks “Haldern” and “Mark’s Theme”, whose harmonies are grand yet subtle.

There is also no ignoring the album’s grand conclusion “Basketball Shoes”. The nearly 13-minute opus-like track is so jammed with musical flavour and storytelling that it could almost be an entire album itself. It perfectly demonstrates Wood’s screechy and raspy vocals: perhaps divisive for casual listeners, but packed with character and emotion even so — overall, a divine ending to one of 2022’s best.

Alex Parkin: “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You” – Big Thief

Big Thief are at the peak of their powers on this album. Adrienne Lenker had already proven herself to be a master storyteller with “Songs and Instrumentals” released during the pandemic, but this latest BT release sees her embodying the spirit of Ditch-era Neil Young with its childlike melodies and jangly guitar work. Two years since their last outing, the band returns with a sprawling double album which plays more like a mixtape than a polished studio recording. This is certainly the band at their most experimental, as they take us on an abrasive but soulful journey across 20 tracks ranging from country rock to trip-hop.

The pristine rhythm section supplements Lenker’s songwriting perfectly, held together by Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia. A number of tracks feature additional instrumentation: for example, the twanging jaw harp of “Spud Infinity” or the looping synth of “Blurred View”. This is a vast project that may test your patience with its lack of stylistic cohesion, but just like The Beatles’ White Album, there is a beauty in its scope. If you give it a chance, it’ll win you over.

Talia Andrea: “MOTOMAMI” – ROSALÍA

For the music world, 2022 was largely the year of playing it safe. With catalogue releases already “account[ing] for 75% of US music consumption” compared to currently-charting tunes by the start of the year, it seemed inevitable that last year would also become the year of the sample, with many artists opting to take their pick of beats to recycle from the existing catalogue with more ferocity than children circling Argos’s mail-order one over Christmas.

Notably, though, ROSALÍA made her mark as one of the only artists to make her samples fit her sound this year, rather than allowing them to define her. Sit through the sixteen-track album and — although there might be a sample or five — there isn’t a safe song in sight, from the bumping bassline and syncopated cymbals of “SAOKO”, whose music video features ROSALÍA’s girl-biker gang speeding on the freeway, to the distant, operatic echoes of “SAKURA”, which sounds like it’s set in a church. The rapturous applause at the end of the album’s final song is well-deserved; the MOTOMAMI herself weaves her metaphorical motorbike between an impressive amount of genres in its 42-minute runtime, including glitchy hyperpop (“BIZCOCHITO”), a lullaby whose title transforms her nephew’s name into a numberplate (G3 N15), and a slippery, autotuned flamenco mix (“BULERÍAS”) which stands for the journey she’s come on as a singer: both where she’s come from, and where she’s going next. With this album, she’s already made it very far — the greatest marker of this being that she’s landed a spot in Roar‘s Culture Choices 2022, naturally.

Megan Gallagher: “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” – Kendrick Lamar

After a five year hiatus, Kendrick Lamar returned with unmistakable proof that he is one of the best lyricists around. The Pulitzer Prize winner was monumental in influencing mainstream music critics to recognise rap lyrics as a poetic art form, and “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” was continual proof of Kendrick’s artistic genius. Much like his albums before, Kendrick’s lyrical bravura provides a glimpse into the Black experience layered on top of restless beats. His songs cover topics such as “controversial” black historical figures, family dynamics, hate speech, hypocrisy, and the cultural hindrance of the vulnerability of black men. 

The album starts with the hypnotic and choral intro to “United In Grief”, which continuously builds into a suave and fast-paced tone where Kendrick expresses that fame and success does not exclude him from the Black American male experience. He establishes this position for the rest of the album, and marks it as one which is layered in solidarity, pride, anger, and the desire for healing. In “Mr Morale & The Big Steppers”, Kendrick presents the multidimensionality of his emotions, as he seemingly tries to ask for help and give it at the same time. The lyrics are a glimpse into his thoughts and life experience, helping the listener understand what his brain has been focused on for the past five years, or more likely, for a lifetime. 

Not afraid to bring in other dominating vocalists, Lamar features talents such as Kodak Black, Summer Walker, Ghostface Killah, Tanna Leone, and many more. Despite his Nazarene crown in the album art symbolising the heavy weight of his own massive success, Lamar shows no aversion to collaborating with vocalists who elevate his songs in ways he might not be able to himself. All of this has clearly paid off: boasting eight 2023 Grammy nominations, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers has proven to be one of the best albums of the year.

Aneela Aslam: “Indigo” – RM

“Indigo”, the debut studio album of BTS frontman Kim Namjoon, acts as a testament of his artistry and undeniable lyrical brilliance. RM himself recommended to fans that they listen to the tracks on “Indigo” in the order in which they are listed, in order to truly understand the album. From the intro track “Yun” (with Erykah Badu) and its old-school hip-hop grittiness, to the unapologetic nature of track ten’s Korean ballad “No.2” (with parkjiyoon), capturing both the lucidity and trepidation of being in your 20s is all part of “Indigo”‘s journey. The nostalgia, longing and solitude woven into the album perfectly encompasses the transformative journey of this period of one’s life.

Clever wordplay, a variety of genres and fascinating production styles enable the 10-track album to provide fans with an in-depth perspective on RM’s perception of himself. The playful, smooth-flowing second track “Still Life” (with Anderson.Paak) lets listeners hear the artists’ pride in having resilience and autonomy amongst the commotion and rush of modern life. This continuous theme of resilience depicted across the album shows RM’s desire to portray the difficulty of being in your 20s, and how this formative period is filled with hardships. The only Korean folk track on the album, “Forg_tful” (with Kim Sawol), produced with entirely unplugged instruments and a gentler sound, is purely nostalgic to simpler and kinder times. This track, which the artist claims was “fateful” and which sparked the process of creating “Indigo”, illustrates the romanticised feeling towards the past we all possess, despite the hardships we may have faced at the time. RM’s bilingual wordplay between Korean and English, and the unique fusions of genre which the album features (such as the rap and rock influences on “Wildflower” (with Youjeen)), demonstrate the wisdom and depth of intuition that RM has let out within Indigo.

The album art itself acts as a confirmation of the album’s message, allowing us to look into the simplicity of RM as a person with lived experience, beyond the artist persona we are used to seeing. The profound humility within the tracks enables listeners to appreciate the tumultuous nature of the artist’s 20s as he looks back in nostalgia. “Indigo” narrates the tale of the rapper’s super-stardom, whilst realistically portraying the experiences of early adulthood. It’s the perfect album to wrap up 2022 with, with its balance of present-day grittiness and rose-tinted perceptions of the past.

Marlene Barthel: “Harry’s House” – Harry Styles

With the release of his third solo studio album, “Harry’s House”, English singer-songwriter Harry Styles was catapulted to a new level of super-stardom. The album’s lead single, “As It Was”, became for many the soundtrack of the summer, and while the catchy pop song has rightfully earned its spot among the 2023 Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year nominations at the Grammys, the entire album captures a side of Styles that his previous releases had partially missed out on: the fun.

“Harry’s House” is an album consisting of love declarations for a country, unconcealed references to cocaine and finding a home away from an unloving family. For the first time, Styles works with concepts rather than vaguely-presented personal experiences; the emotional ballad “Matilda” comes to mind, which is written from the perspective of a young girl finding her place in the world.

Best experienced live, this album has kept Styles successfully selling out venues during his “Love On Tour” series of shows (which originally kicked off following the release of his sophomore album “Fine Line”, before the pandemic hit in 2019). His dancing during “Satellite” (arguably the best song from “Harry’s House”), which consists of stomping energetically to the drums of the song’s bridge, has gone viral multiple times and captures the joyful atmosphere of the record perfectly. And while the album’s intention seems to be to create an exploratory escape for the listener, the lyrics do not lack depth — they still concern themselves with deep introspection, particularly on the process of falling in love.

“Harry’s House” captures the nuance of contemporary pop in a unique and brilliant way that perfectly substantiates the Album Of The Year nominations it has already received (including from us here at Roar), and makes the future of Harry Styles’s career something to look expectantly forward to.

Marlene Barthel: “Faith In The Future” – Louis Tomlinson

Louis Tomlinson’s highly anticipated sophomore album “Faith In The Future” is his first independent release through the publisher-label hybrid BMG. In a clear attempt to distance himself from his debut album “Walls”, this album saw Tomlinson branch out into a contemporary rock sound, which was a perfect display of his growth in confidence, not merely as a songwriter but as an artist with stage presence.

“Faith In The Future” was as unexpected as it was brilliant, and while the choice to pursue a non-pop path might have seemed risky at first glance (especially as pop was the genre that first made Tomlinson famous), the indie-rock influences were definitely not unfamiliar to his dedicated fanbase. Putting on his own music festival for the past two years has allowed him to explore the varying tastes of the crowds, and the fact that this record was written with the adjacent live show in mind is unmissable. It seems like Tomlinson has finally found his footing as a solo artist after experimenting with electronic sounds in his first release, before turning back to more familiar pop tracks on “Walls”. “Faith In The Future” finally sounds like Louis Tomlinson, without it having to try too hard.

With a consistent sound that manages to avoid repetitiveness, the album shows a skill and knowledge of songwriting that few know how to successfully pull off. His growth as an artist is also evident in some of the vocals on songs like “Bigger Than Me”, while the surprisingly sultry tone of “Written All Over Your Face” has become an instant classic. And while radio might not have picked up on the independently-released lead single, the Britpop record undoubtedly deserved its UK Number 1 debut on the charts.

“Faith In The Future”, while only released in November, has earned its rightful place as one of the best albums of 2022 with insightful lyrics, impressive vocals and an electric atmosphere that will unquestionably be carried through into Tomlinson’s 2023 World Tour.

Leon Lewis: “Cheat Codes” – Black Thought and Danger Mouse

When two great artists connect to create a musical project, you know you’re in for something special. So, when the instrumental mastermind behind collaborative groups such as Gnarls Barkley and Danger Doom met up with hip-hop veteran and frontman of legendary group The Roots, an album of the year contender was bound to be in the works. “Cheat Codes” was the incredible result.

With perhaps the most creative and unique production within hip-hop this year, Danger Mouse brings forth full, bold and serious melodic instrumentals, which on tracks like “The Darkest Part” and “Belize” with the late MF DOOM, are nothing short of timeless. Soulful vocals are also pulled and placed on the songs “Sometimes”, “Because” and others, which adds such a vitality and liveliness that you don’t even realise the absence of choruses from Black Thought.

On his own lyrical pedestal, Black Thought doesn’t get overshadowed by the astounding production, matching Danger Mouse’s vivid beats with top-tier rhyme schemes and metaphors on every track, ever-proving his status as one of hip-hop’s best lyricists. He isn’t on his own, however, as the project enlists artists new and old, such as Joey Bada$$, Raekwon, MF DOOM, Run The Jewels and A$AP Rocky, to paint on this sonic palette. The features add incredible amounts to the tracks, especially Michael Kiwanuka’s grave and atmospheric chorus on “Aquamarine”, and Russ’s effortlessly flowing verse on “Because”.

All in all, “Cheat Codes” combines Black Thought’s macrocosmic, world-weary bars and Danger Mouse’s unrivalled and colourful production, which ultimately equates to a perfect fusion between “old” and “new” styles of hip-hop. Metaphorical, masterful and doused in a timeless black-and-white aesthetic with a uniquely artistic album cover, “Cheat Codes” is my album of the year.

Music Editor at Roar News. Shortlisted for Rising Star/Best Newcomer at SPANC2022. Comparative Literature BA student, graduating Summer 2024.

Alex Parkin
Leon Lewis
Marlene Barthel

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