We’re just past the midway point of 2022, which means it’s a good opportunity to look back at some solid records that might have flown under the radar for some. From Straw Man Army’s masterfully detailed punk to Bodysync’s buoyant rave pop and Whitney K’s poetic, Lou Reed-esque twang, there’s so much wonderful artistry out there this year. Fall under the spell of Queen of Jeans’ mighty pop songs, M!R!M’s textured synth palaces, Zinské’s sharp social commentary and Maneka’s compelling cross-pollination of all sorts of genres.
If you enjoy any of the following EPs and LPs, consider purchasing them and catching these artists live in a city near you. (And if you need more music recommendations from 2022, be sure to check out Paste’s extensive, staff-curated list of best albums of 2022 so far here). Happy listening!
Sample all of these releases with our accompanying Spotify playlist here.
Not much is known about the young Dutch band A fungus, though they seem to derive from the same Amsterdam guitar scene that spawned groups such as Personal Trainer, Global Charming and Canshaker Pi and centers around a studio called Erik’s House. Their songwriting ability and math-y post-hardcore chops, however, are quite clear. On their self-released debut album It Already Does That, they evoke the wide-ranging experimental tendencies of recent British bands like black midi and Caroline—folding in the math-y tempo shifts of the former and the spidery slowcore and post-rock of the latter—plus various ‘90s indie rock, emo and post-hardcore bands. Ideas may be flowing 100 miles a minute on this record, but this band does a convincing job of balancing their penchant for stop-starts and intricate guitar work with delicate, rewarding hooks. It Already Does That is the work of a band who’s seemingly delighted by the thought of throwing listeners off their scent, with disintegrating guitar lines at the center of everything they do, but their sensitive vocals are what really drives this album home. The taut vocals of “Health” that mirror its rollicking guitars are positively invigorating, and the tender vocals of “Mark’s Bag” are surprisingly singalong-worthy for an album this mercurial.
Alexia Avina’s ambient pop feels like a warm cocoon. On her latest album A Little Older, her calm vocals dance in the wind over guitar flutters, amorphous rumbles and the occasional boom or crash of percussion, resulting in a series of introspective sounds. These sonic ripples are positively pacifying, passing over the listener like sea foam rolling over one’s toes. Lyrically, A Little Older examines Avina’s emotional growth over time, fascinated and perhaps disappointed by humans’ inherent shortcomings when it comes to matters like love and trust. It also ruminates on the notion that growing older doesn’t automatically fill an existential void or suddenly start to make sense. Life will continue to be irrational, and there will always be times when you feel like life is passing through you rather than being an active participant in it. “Should I feel older? A gaping hole / How could I feel more than a hazy glow?” Avina asks on “Way Things Grow.” For all its elemental metaphors, this album is also a vulnerable self-portrait. Its title track, armed with throttling guitar static, is about Avina’s relationship to consent and her own autonomy. “And how can I learn the way to say no / When all that we’ve shown is wider than feeling? / I’m mastering the waves of unfeeling erosion / Something in the way he unbuttoned my shirt without asking,” she sings.
Bodysync is the new project of two veteran electronic producers: Ryan Hemsworth, who recently released an EP on Saddle Creek under the moniker Quarter-Life Crisis, and Giraffage, whose latest full-length Too Real arrived via Ninja Tune imprint Counter Records. Radio Active, their debut album as Bodysync, is both a reverent celebration of ‘90s house music and a fun-loving reimagination of the genre through the lens of bubbly R&B and dance-pop. From the heady breakbeats of “Good Morning” and the U.K. garage-inflected “Body” to the suave, distorted R&B of “Japan” and the glossy ‘00s pop of “Just Kiss,” they traverse a number of styles, but the throughline is dance music with immersive grooves and a surprisingly light airiness. Their songs frequently center on energizing passages of piano house and joyful vocal features, which bring about an easygoing but no less transcendent bliss. Nite Jewel’s soulful, soaring vocals on “Forever” sound like a classic house sample, Tinashe’s pitched vocal cuts on “Body” lend the track a blurry otherworldliness and Daniela Andrade’s near-whispered Spanish vocals on “Suenos Bravos” usher in a seductive, smooth ecstasy. They even channel the funky disco of Daft Punk on “Jet Lag,” doubling down on Bodysync’s delightfully uncynical take on electro-pop.
There’s a peculiar power to Caution’s driving, art-y dream pop. From the bluesy shoegaze romp of “Red Rose” to lo-fi electro ripper “Hand That Looks Like Mine,” Caution delight with sticky pop melodies and a deluge of sonic scuff marks. Songs are bathed in blinking fuzz, hypnagogic reverb, and cool charm, and the duo’s shared lead vocals take things to the next level. Nora Button’s wispy voice floats through the air like dandelion seeds, and Cash Langdon’s voice brings an endearing coziness—but melt the two together, and you get wonderfully pillow harmonies. The band’s debut album, Arcola, evokes Chapterhouse’s synth-y shoegaze and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s timeless noise-pop, showing off their keen ear for texture and dynamics. And for all its focus on nailing pop hooks and building interesting sound worlds, they’re also skilled wielders of bold, steamy guitars—the confident bombast of ”Swerve” is just good dumb fun and the duel between the central chiming riff and meaty fuzz on “Calendar of Waiting Stress” is an explosive sensory experience.
Gravity Licker, the recent EP from L.A. outfit Clear Capsule, is one of the more imaginative and consistently solid takes on shoegaze you’ll hear this year. If you like your guitar music with pummeling fuzz, memorable hooks and eccentric touches, you’ve come to the right place. Their music evokes Crumb’s icy synth-pop, Narrow Head’s snarling heavy rock and Sweet Trip’s swirly IDM, showcasing a foggy sound equally suited to idiosyncratic electro-pop and headbanging shoegaze. Part of this dynamism stems from Bryce Pulaski’s nasally, tender vocals, which alternate between alluring softness and snarling swagger and never get lost within the mix. “Collin Hit Car” represents the EP’s sweltering side, with Pulaski’s magnetic snarls and their flamethrower-like guitars, while songs like “Bacteria” and “Familiar Becomes Foreign” rest on a slower, more dreamlike and percussive-heavy sound filled with fizzing synths and gauzy vocal production. The feedback-soaked “Underpass,” on the other hand, is a clever mix between the two styles—their aggressively dense guitars compliment the song’s dizzyingly slow pace and off-kilter electronic embellishments. Not only is Gravity Licker a convincing level-up from their previous EP, but it’s indicative of a band that meshes urgency with intrigue better than most.
There’s no full-length album to speak of yet, but Vancouver’s Curves have low-key (or maybe high-key?) become one of my favorite lo-fi bands. With their penchant for melancholia, humor and scrappy tunefulness, they feel like a band that’s easy to hold dear—particularly in these spectacularly stupid times we’re living in. Both of their EPs, last year’s Women’s Fitness Centre and this year’s a line or outline which gradually deviates from being straight, feature an image of a cardboard box on the cover and are titled with various manifestations of their band name—I await their next EP title with bated breath. (A particularly winding baseball pitch? A system in which grades are assigned to students based on their performance relative to other students?) Anyways, the latter EP is about love, death, longing, and existential crises, filtering complicated concepts through familiar language glued together somewhat abstractly. “You could be the big smoke / I could be the elbow,” they sing with charm on “Big Smoke,” while in the “House Party” chorus, they repeat the phrase “Love is tar” with an air of cynicism. Beyond their invitingly disheveled tunes, the one thing I appreciate most about Curves is their understanding of the fine line between laughter and tears. “Life is but a dream / Row row row your boat / Gently down the stream,” they sing on “Zeep Zop,” a line that could easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back if you’re on the verge of a breakdown or a much-needed reminder of how silly life is.
Fault Lines, the latest record from the Toronto-formed and now European-based band Deliluh, is as chilling as it is beautiful. Resting on minimal post-punk grooves, ambient synths, saxophone, string flourishes and hair-raising, discordant chants that fall somewhere between speaking and singing, Fault Lines will certainly test the senses. The austere nature of this record is striking, with its slowly creeping tempos, creaky guitars and Kyle Knapp’s foreboding, monotone voice, but when despair is captured with such precision as it is here, it’s hard not to form a deep emotional attachment to these bleak sounds. “When all hope is left in the cold, dead in the road / Don’t say the sun still rises to light my way,” Knapp utters over unforgiving experimental noise on “Body and Soul.” The final track “Mirror of Hope” is the most gorgeous of the bunch, with Knapp delivering a gripping spoken-word vignette about a conductor who’s cultivated a profound, impenetrable state of peace and wisdom while helming their train. His voice hovers over ambient echoes, which soon grow louder and give way to saxophone and strings—both crying out in distress in staggeringly human fashion.
Throughout the mid-2010s, Welsh band Joanna Gruesome delighted with their scuzzy dream-punk songs, primitive and tuneful in equal measure. Compared to their popular noise-pop peers, they were committed to a rougher, more haywire sound, but could still hold their own in terms of pure pop songcraft. It’s practically a running joke that no one can keep track of the innumerable bands featuring former Joanna Gruesome members, but the new songs from Ex-Vöid—an outfit led by vocalists and guitarists Lan McArdle and Owen Williams—sit firmly among the best work they’ve done. Their debut LP Bigger Than Before is one of those records that’s stupidly fun—perfect for a raucous, beer-soaked bar show—but is also sneakily dynamic. It’s marked by McArdle and Wilson’s feel-good lead vocals and radiant dual guitar solos, which shine especially on the sassy punk number “Chemical Reaction” and the so-catchy-it’s-almost-too-good-to-be-true “No Other Way.” They fuse harmony-centric pop with the grabby riffs of classic rock, the charm of folky jangle pop, and the unrelenting motor of punk that powered Joanna Gruesome for several glorious years. Here Ex-Vöid manages exceptionally memorable, energizing pop/rock without hiding behind their dense lo-fi production or coarse guitar tones of years past. It’s hard to imagine another guitar pop record in 2022 besting this one.
Listening to Dark Matters, Devin McKnight’s third full-length as Maneka, is a wonderfully jolting experience. You’ll hear bursts of warped synth-rock, nonchalant jazz and throttling shoegaze within mere seconds of each other—all without anything feeling out of place. But its fascinating, crafty seamlessness and punchy performances didn’t appear out of thin air—it’s indicative of an artist who has long been honing his craft. Over the years, McKnight has played guitar in outfits like Speedy Ortiz, Grass Is Green and Philadelphia Collins, so it’s no surprise there’s a compositional command running throughout the entire record. Tasty trap beats exist next to rootsy psych, and McKnight’s droning vocals shift between emo, dream pop, rap and slowcore. With Dark Matters, it’s clear McKnight views genres as analogous rather than siloed, and that sort of freedom also corresponds with the album’s lyrical perspective. This LP finds McKnight taking up space as a Black musician in indie rock circles—a space that still feels alienating to many—and addressing aspects of racism this country still has yet to grapple with. He’s perhaps most blunt and powerful on “The Glow Up,” singing, “And how do you explain this? / The seat in the back is meant for me? / And how do you explain this? / The ones we lost hanging from the trees.”
London-based Italian musician Iacopo Bertelli makes eccentric, warped synth-pop under the name Jack Milwaukee for a solo project called M!R!M. His latest album Time Traitor fuses new wave, dark wave, Italo disco and sophisti-pop sounds, resulting in a treasure trove of leftfield synth-pop. M!R!M’s music rests on a palpable longing, which is due in large part to Milwaukee’s expressive vocals—at times swirling with dejection or whispered with romance and other times fuming with pent-up anguish. It’s a bit surprising how much emotion he’s able to extract considering his use of heavy vocal distortion, but this only adds an alluring sense of mystery to his songs. If you’re expecting this to be a vaguely gothic synth-pop album, that’s not totally incorrect, but Time Traitor feels more like a collection of classic 4AD dream pop soundscapes and stylish, obscure synth music patched together as if it were a hip-hop record, crackling with transcendent textures and carefully sourced samples. Time Traitor’s lyrics take listeners down a rabbit hole of Milwaukee’s childhood as he uncovers murky tales of love, desire and desolation. “I watched my hands and I did find / One reason to live and two reasons to die,” he sings on “Faultless Pitch,” and few lyrics capture the over-the-top yet overwhelming angst of youth like this one.
Queen of Jeans are one of those bands that just has that special something. The Philadelphia group has been releasing their self-described “crockpot pop”—imagine plentiful hooks, light guitar twang, benevolent lyrics and sweet yet robust vocals—for several years now, and thankfully they’ve returned this year. Their latest full-length, 2019’s If you’re not afraid, I’m not afraid, had an unsuspecting power, and as simple as those songs may seem, their sound is rather difficult to pin down—vaguely beachy, grungy, bucolic and bubblegum all at the same time, but somehow none of those things in particular. Now back with an EP titled Hiding in Place, they’re climbing higher pop heights, with songs that showcase lead vocalist Miri Devora’s ability to belt, enhancing the emotional impact of their lyrics tenfold. Ironically, the title track features a supremely confident and charming vocal performance, while its lyrics paint a picture of festering insecurities and isolating anxiety. “Why Hide,” meanwhile, takes a more optimistic view of the same doubts plaguing Devora on the title track, as she sings, “Why hide / Anything that makes you bright / Why hide / What’s lately always on my mind.” But the moment they soar the highest is the massive vocal takeoff on “Was I Ever,” breaking new ground for a band who’s already cultivated their own unique, twinkly niche.
Damián Antón Ojeda makes shapeshifting black metal under the name Sadness—and a lot of it. He’s released a number of EPs and LPs in 2022 alone, and over the years, he’s amassed a cult following through platforms like Bandcamp, Rate Your Music and Patreon. There’s hardly a bad choice for the best Sadness project that came out this year, but the our time is here EP is what stuck out the most to me. For one thing, it’s noticeably brighter than much of his output and skews more towards the “gaze” side of things, dipping into dream pop, post-rock and emo. There’s still a punishing density and unrelenting chug to this two-song EP, with Ojeda’s black metal shrieks floating beneath the surface, but his guitar lines are front and center this time, making these tracks feel more song-y compared to his usual multi-arc odysseys. “late spring true love” may be seven minutes long, but it’s rather anthemic, as its central guitar riffs and vocal hooks result in an invigorating cross between shoegaze, power pop and emo. “sunset girl,” by comparison, is more propulsive and post-hardcore-centric, resting on pitched-shifted, andogynous vocals and rhythm-driven guitars. It’s an EP that warrants joyful punches to the sky, and that’s something to be savored within Ojeda’s discography.
“Humankind can be hard to find” is one hell of a lyric to open an album. It’s the first line of Straw Man Army’s SOS, a grim punk album with rare melodic know-how. You might expect a stern, dystopian post-punk record like this one to have vocals coated with smokestack fog or static fuzz, but their vocals are unimpeded and right at the front of the mix, mourning the downfall of a species repeatedly brutalized by systems of oppression. The attention to detail is staggering—their vocals flicker between the melodic and anti-melodic to perfection, and their nimble guitar work oozes with personality. It’s also an album of jaw-dropping rhythmic finesse—any decent bassist or drummer would salivate over their unexpected arrangements and enticing dynamics and tones. And despite their gripping mood-setting, they don’t shy away from a grabby hook. The gang vocals that close “Faces in the Dark” are gratifying in a classic punk-pop sense, and the soft, amiable refrain of “Beware” is a welcome departure. Add in the occasional chiming synth, siren cry and nature sound interlude for a bit more texture and it’s almost comical how great this album is. An undeniable album-of-the-year contender.
Picture this: the corpses of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson are sprawled out in the middle of a quaint countryside. There’s a dog rearing up in the foreground, looking fairly menacing. Dylan still has a cigarette resting on his lips. This scene was painted by Caro Deschênes, and it serves as the front cover of Whitney K’s Hard To Be a God. This EP is the latest work from Montreal-based singer/songwriter Konner Whitney, and you can definitely hear the spirit of each of these troubadours within his cerebral, heartfelt songcraft. From Reed’s garage-y country songs and deadpan drawl to Dylan’s world weary lyrics and Kristofferson’s skillful blend of the universal and personal, Whitney uses these attributes as vehicles for his own artistic vision rather than mere cosplay. Whitney’s ability to capture a deep existential yearning and conjure majesty through a connection to something far bigger and more meaningful is immediately striking. His songs feel like reveries. We’re not just being visited by specters of artists past and present—we’re also acquainted with loosely formed visions from Whitney’s life. While it humbly mourns the tragedy that the past is just that, it’s also a celebration of the people who pass through our lives and a heartfelt attempt to grapple with what a vast amalgam of personal experiences means for the present and future. Against a backdrop of strummy electric guitars, sincere acoustic plucks, string crescendos, and piano plunks, Whitney sifts through his life for wisdom. Twangy, spiritually-on-the-run rock ‘n’ roll may feel like a hackneyed trope at this point, but Hard To Be a God feels singular.
If you listen to Murder Mart at least once, good luck getting Zinské’s bass-driven college rock out of your head. The first thing I noticed about this Philadelphia band’s debut album was Chris Lipczynski’s subtly saucy, low-register vocals—falling somewhere between Damon Albarn and David Berman—followed closely by peculiar song titles like “Disappearing in Yucca Valley,” “Horseface Josey” and “Ortolan Sung.” But a deeper listen uncovers sharp social critiques amidst their distorted guitar lines. Zinské uses absurd imagery to highlight today’s rampant dehumanization and lack of meaningful connection, and their characters’ stories of interpersonal (and sometimes violent) tragedy are met with callous yet mundane indifference. It may skewer American suburban life (“Freon Dumb”), corporate overlords (“Power Con”) and our country’s unique religious fervor (“Horseface Josey”), but at its core, Murder Mart is about how countless societal crises rob individuals of their autonomy, demoting them to mere pawns, consumers, robots and—worst of all—collateral damage. These themes could easily feel like a downer if it weren’t for their cheeky lead vocal delivery, snappy Built to Spill-like guitar arrangements and comically dry lyrics. Who could resist lines like “I drove to work each day and ate crap / Then I died of a heart attack / You can find my corpse out back / But my soul’s playin’ catch”?
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Stereogum, Pitchfork, Billboard, Flood Magazine, The Recording Academy and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno