KT Tunstall – NUT: I’m feeling ever gratеful for the mess in my head.

Artist: KT Tunstall
Album: NUT
Year: 2022
Grade: B

In Brief: This short-but-sweet record that wraps the heart/soul/mind trilogy Tunstall began in 2016 is easily the most fun record she’s put out since 2010’s Tiger Suit. Engaging rhythms, and coming up with inventive ways to make them, have always been an important part of her work, and that’s what hits first on this engaging pop/rock record, which also happens to have a number of delightful little guitar breaks. While there are a few ballads here (and they’re generally quite good as well), for the most part it seems like she set out to prove that writing songs about the mind doesn’t necessarily have to be a slow, cerebral experience. Good art can make us dance and think at the same time!

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The Dear Hunter – Antimai: The Rings of Power

Artist: The Dear Hunter
Album: Antimai
Year: 2022
Grade: A

In Brief: With colorful instrumentation and engaging song structures that occasionally shift in radically different directions at a moment’s notice, The Dear Hunter has opened up a brand new chapter in their long, elaborate discography of high-concept storytelling. While Antimai is only meant as the introduction to a new multi-album story arc, it does an amazing job of setting the scene and establishing the characters in this fictional city whose concentric rings represent different classes or castes with increasingly higher levels of privilege and power. I’m really stoked to see where they end up going with this on future albums.

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Rina Sawayama – Hold the Girl: I was wrong to assume I would ever outgrow you.

Artist: Rina Sawayama
Album: Hold the Girl
Year: 2022
Grade: B+

In Brief: While it would be a mistake to call Rina’s second LP more “mature” or more “personal” than her debut – an album which already had plenty of those qualities on display – it’s definitely one that eases up on the social commentary and occasional shock tactics in favor of telling a more intimate story about bridging the gap between who she is and who she was. There’s also the issue of how people perceive her – which is where this record gets a little more sassy. And don’t you worry, there’s plenty of upbeat pop perfection and 1990s/2000s nostalgia here to go along with the more introspective moments. Her debut might be a tough record to top, but this is an incredibly solid follow-up that reminds us her early successes were no fluke.

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Madonna – Ray of Light: She finally melted my heart.

Artist: Madonna
Album: Ray of Light
Year: 1998
Grade: A-

In Brief: One of the biggest surprises as I went back to revisit the 90s last year was not just that I had fond memories of a handful of tracks from this landmark Madonna record, but that I wound up wholeheartedly enjoying the entire thing. It was a delight to discover just how warm, contemplative, spiritual, and downright healthy a lot of this record’s lyrics were, despite the icy coolness of its overall sound. This one challenged my perceptions of an artist I had previously assumed I would never get into, and as successful pop music makeovers go, it’s definitely one for the history books. A lot of the dance-pop and electronica that I appreciate nowadays might not be what it is without Ray of Light.

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Sylvan Esso – No Rules Sandy: Surreal, But Free

Artist: Sylvan Esso
Album: No Rules Sandy
Year: 2022
Grade: B

In Brief: While Sylvan Esso’s approach to electropop has always been incredibly quirky, they seem to have upped the ante on this rather scattershot and more spontaneous-sounding collection of songs, resulting in an album that might feel a bit less unified than their past few, but that makes up for it with its fair share of interesting side journeys. Their self-titled debut is still the gold standard as far as I’m concerned, but this one’s a good candidate for second place.

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Nilüfer Yanya – Painless: I need some time to work out who this is.

Artist: Nilüfer Yanya
Album: Painless
Year: 2022
Grade: A-

In Brief: Nilüfer Yanya’s music is easy for me to love, but hard for me to classify. Her choice of guitar tones, moody chord progressions, and throwback drum programming gives me a strong whiff of 90s alt-pop and the mellower side of grunge, but then the sultry depth of her vocals throws me for a loop. The heavy focus on rhythm brings to mind genres ranging from R&B and soul to trip-hop, yet this never seems to clash with the rock instrumentation. This is one of those introverted records that takes a few listens to really connect with on a deeper level than just enjoying the uniquely textured sounds and melodies that she has to offer, but falling in love with those sounds was so effortless for me that I immediately knew I wanted to stick around.

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Muse – Will of the People: Is this what ANY of the people wanted from Muse?

Artist: Muse
Album: Will of the People
Year: 2022
Grade: C+

In Brief: By attempting to make “a greatest hits album of new songs”, Muse ends up covering a lot of familiar ground with very little new to say, and jumping around stylistically to the point where it’s hard for the listener to stay invested for more than a few minutes at the time. There’s at least a little something worthwhile here for pretty much anyone who has liked Muse at some point from the mid-2000s on, but unfortunately, Will of the People does an even better job of highlighting the reasons people like to make fun of Muse than it does of demonstrating what’s left to like about them after a string of inconsistent records in the 2010s.

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What Am I Listening To? – September 2022

Here are my thoughts on the latest from The Dear Hunter, KT Tunstall, Madison Cunningham, San Fermin, Tom Hummer, Copeland, Rina Sawayama, Death Cab for Cutie, Jesca Hoop, Iron & Wine, Michelle Branch, and Weezer.

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Fold Zandura – Ultraforever: You’ve stepped into the future! (OK, actually it’s 25 years into the past.)

Artist: Fold Zandura
Album: Ultraforever
Year: 1997
Grade: B+

In Brief: Most will probably only ever know Fold Zandura (or their precursor, Mortal) as “that band that the one dude from Switchfoot used to be in”, but this little-known band that only (technically) ever cut one album certainly managed to stick with me despite their short run. Their influences pulled together some of the best space rock, industrial, shoegaze, and dream pop influences that the 90s had to offer, and blend it all into an expansive nebula of sound that still inspires a sense of wonder in me a quarter century later.

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