It’s the summer solstice and, therefore, what better way to spend the longest day of the year than listening to the best albums of the year… so far.
Having recently learned of Beyoncé’s forthcoming album, too – from which a 90s-house-inspired track has already been released – what better time than to look at some of the best albums released so far. Of course, Bey’s album doesn’t arrive until 29 July, so it doesn’t quite qualify for this list (before we receive any hate mail).
Angel Olsen – Big Time
Angel Olsen’s sixth studio album has that cinematic quality; a sound, symphonic at times, which transports you to the hilltop of an American country desert. Exactly the kind seen on the album cover. In the space of two years, the Missouri singer-songwriter lost both her parents and came out publicly. A hushed, tender struggle really comes through on this beautiful album.
Axel Boman – Luz
As summer is now underway, and Drake and Beyoncé’s recent releases pivot toward dance music, I think it’s safe to say we’re all ready for a groove. Axel Boman’s hit us with a pretty danceable number in April, though. Luz might translate to ‘daylight’ en inglés, but many of its tracks bear a darker, more mischievous tone, making the album all the more compelling.
Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
A 20-track album, with an equally lengthy title, this is the fifth studio album from Big Thief. Led by Adrianne Lenker’s hushed vocals, the Brooklyn band’s 2017 Capacity remains one of my all-time favourite records. Just like the simple pencil-and-paper album cover, sometimes the tracks on this latest album feel a little unfinished, as though we’re being shown the workings-out of tunes. However, for well-established acts that can sometimes work in their favour and Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is certainly one of the best albums of this year.
Charli XCX – CRASH
CRASH was the last album released under the terms of Charli XCX’s five-album recording contract with Atlantic Records. Yet far from going out with a… crash… the pop star showed she could embrace a more typical dance-pop approach compared to previous releases, whilst still remaining authentic to herself. The commercial success of the record has also done a lot of the talking, bagging the singer her first UK Number album.
Florence & the Machine – Dance Fever
Speaking of authenticity, few embody it quite like Florence Welch, lead singer (of course) of Florence + the Machine. Dance Fever even turned much of this purity outwards, with lyrics reflecting on her need to be ‘Free’ and the ‘Choreomania’ or “dancing plague” phenomenon she read about before the pandemic. It’s certainly not a house record, but true to its name, Dance Fever has us moving in a different manner.
Fontaines D.C. – Skinty Fia
Note how I’ve presented these in alphabetical order, to avoid the ire of anyone considering this list itself a ranking. Skinty Fia, though, remains my favourite album of the year so far. Moody and more rhythmic than I’d anticipated, with the Irish twang of lead singer Grian Chatten, it’ll in fact be a big ask for another album to surpass it this year. ‘Skinty Fia’ typically translates as ‘for fuck’s sake’ in Irish; if you’ve not yet dwelled on this album on repeat, then for fuck’s sake, do so.
Vince Staples – RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART
Five stars, deemed our very own Archie Brydon, of Vince Staples’ album released earlier this year. He has a point – hence why, after deliberation, I’ve decided it pips Future’s I NEVER LIKED YOU into being on the list. Its G-Funk characteristics – the sound that emerged from the West Coast scene in the late ‘80s – combined with Staples’ personal lyrics makes the album replete with nostalgia. Expect it to have a longer shelf-life than just this year alone – for Archie, at the every least.
Harry Styles – Harry’s House
Just two hours after its release on Apple Music, Harry’s House received the most first-day streams for a pop album in 2022. Its lead single, ‘As It Was’, held onto an impressive ten-week stay at the top of the singles chart, requiring Kate Bush and an entire Netflix series to knock that off its perch. And whilst it may not be to everyone’s liking – nothing in the world of pop ever is, by those who deem themselves above it – the record continues to win plaudits and introduce us to Harry’s home. Even if that home is a major arena.
Just Mustard – Heart Under
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s a special sound brewing in Ireland at the moment; one captured across the different voices in Fontaines D.C., Sinead O’Brien and Just Mustard. Of the three mentioned, Just Mustard’s Heart Under is the darkest of them all – more so, even, than Skinty Fia – led by the ghostly vocals of Katie Ball.
Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
No doubt the most anticipated album of the year so far, the five-year hype between Damn and Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers didn’t appear to phase Kung-Fu Kenny. In fact, that was part helped by the Compton rapper leaning right into it, versing on ‘Worldwide Steppers’, for instance, he had “Writer’s block for two years, nothin’ moved me”. “Asked God to speak through me,” he continues, “that’s what you hearin’ now.” He’s not wrong.
Kurt Vile – (watch my moves)
Kurt Vile has often produced works that swirl around in your head like dreams; taking off into the distance lyrically and sonically, leaving you quite unsure where exactly they’ll land. His exceptionally accompanied musicianship (he was of course the former lead guitarist for The War on Drugs) is the driving force behind that. Experts in their field are always one step ahead and (watch my moves) demonstrates exactly that.
Mitski – Laurel Hell
Mitski has engendered one of those rare feats among her fans: the belief that she gets you like no one else, and that you in turn understand her. Perhaps the air of mystique that surrounds her (she quit social media in 2019, with her manager now running her accounts) helps. Laurel Hell, with its emotional 80s synth-pop, further adds to the fuel of those wanting to be close to her, singing about love and all the matters most intimate to us. Even Barack Obama is one such person bewitched by her musical charm. He included the album’s second single, ‘The Only Heartbreaker’, released last November, on his annual list of favourite songs for 2021.
Nilüfer Yanya – PAINLESS
The title for Nilüfer Yanya’s second and most impressive full-length record to date derives from that simple yet sometimes difficult-to-live-with understanding that pain isn’t always a negative thing – a sign of her maturation. Equally mature as its message is her musical ability to know when to be sparing on this album. Sometimes, less is more. And that’s just why, along with her distinctive, low-pitched voice, this album fully cements her as a vital new force in British music.
Pusha T – It’s Almost Dry
Earlier this month, Pusha T told the crowd at a gig in Los Angeles that It’s Almost Dry is the best rap album of the year. Kendrick fans might have something to say about that. Yet with King Push’s driven flow, hitting every word like he means it, plus a shitload of features, it’s nonetheless a shoe-in for being one of the best albums so far this year.
ROSALÍA – MOTOMAMI
ROSALÍA is the daring queen of flamenco-influenced pop and MOTOMAMI is more of the experimental drive that’s made us grown to love her – one that belies the trappings of her having signed with a new major label in Columbia Records, following the success of her debut, El mal querer.
Saba – Few Good Things
An album that shows real vision, Few Good Things shares similar hallmarks to Vince Staples’ album release this year: a rap album that doesn’t play into any stereotypical presentations of life as a young African American but tries to capture all of it. There’s grief, love, tragedy and joy – and everything in-between. ‘One Way or Every N***a With a Budget’ is a particularly meditative work of brilliance. This album is one of the real gems of the year.
The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention
Yes, they sound a bit like Radiohead but that can hardly be a reason to mark them down. With Thom at the helm, The Smile project was never trying to be anything exceedingly different. The brilliance of Radiohead, of course, is the diversity of their sound over the years. This album, therefore, draws on moments of A Moon Shaped Pool, parts of Hail to the Thief and some of the atmosphere of the closing three tracks of The King of Limbs to create something all Radiohead fans – and even some new ones – can enjoy.
Wilco – Cruel Country
Another lengthy record on the list this one, split into a double album – something that only really works when the tracks are strong enough. Thankfully, Wilco’s Cruel Country, contains sweeping, heartrending tracks that are exactly so. Frontman Jeff Tweedy (formerly of alt-country group Uncle Tupelo) described the album as the band fully embracing country music. Like Angel Olsen’s Big Time which opened this list, it bears that greatest of all country music traits, weaving tales and personal stories.
Wet Leg – Wet Leg
Word has it that Wet Leg have already completed their second studio album – something the pair, consisting of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers, recently revealed to Absolute Radio. They added, however, that it’ll be a while until they release it. Until then, we have their eponymous debut to enjoy, which is currently hitting the festival circuit with unsurprising aplomb.
Yard Act – The Overload
To round off the list, The Overload might not be the best album on this list, but some extra credit has to be given to the manner in which Yard Act have pushed their album through their live performances – earning them the status as being the most-booked new act across Europe this summer in the process. Their material is a wry commentary on our times and well-worth listening to, if only to familiarise yourself with their songs before seeing them live – which I urge you to do.