Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of Q1 2022 (Academy Fight Song Edition)
01 ALDOUS HARDING | "Passion Babe"
Something peculiar this way comes and its source is fittingly an isolated geographical location. New Zealand seems the perfect petri dish for Aldous Harding's minimalist folk-pop constructions. She's like the curator of a musical curiosity shop named Warm Chris, a place stocked with oddities and doohickies that require your imagination to discern their purpose and reason for creation. Harding's songs don't usually let us in on their true intentions, but it's enough to just be inside her world for a while. It's just an interesting place to visit. There are cracks that let in some light now and then, the chorus of "Passion Babe" being one such morsel; "Passion must play / Or passion won't stay" seems to lay the groundwork for a conventional relationship gone wrong song. That is, until Aldous trots out the next stanza, "You can have the pelican / Swim him till the river's running clear." And once again, we're left standing there, confused and speculating. A wonderful feeling that guarantees your return.
02 CATE LE BON | "Moderation"
Le Bon's new album, the ominously-titled Pompeii, is about as beguiling as modern music gets these days—well, at least since the last track on this mixtape, that is. But where I've always been smitten with Aldous, I've always felt like an outsider looking in at Cate's music. I don't always get things right away, I admit openly, but I'm not sure it was entirely my fault this time either. To this day, I'm not completely sure I can put my finger on the reason why. Especially since I normally swoon for the impenetrable, delighting in my inability to fully understand an artist's musical motives. I do love a challenge, though. Thankfully, I don't have to scratch my head anymore, for the Welsh wonder has bowled me over with her latest batch of inscrutable pop songs. It doesn't hurt to have "Moderation" as the main access point this time—as close as she might ever come to a conventional hit song. She even mollifies slow learners like me by commiserating with us a bit in her lyrics: "I get by / One eye in the sky / But I can't put my finger on it / I wanna cry / I'm outta my mind / Tryna figure it out." I appreciate the bone toss, Cate, but perhaps neither of us were ever supposed to figure it out in the first place. In the end, it's probably better this way.
03 ANAND WILDER | "Delirium Passes"
I loved Yeasayer's sound right out of the gate. 2007's All Hour Cymbals (dumb title aside) and 2010's Odd Blood rank as two of my favorite albums from their respective release years. Then they lost me over their next few albums, to the point now where I don't even remember them releasing some of the records in their discography. And I keep a pretty close watch on new releases! Does that ever happen to you? How cold of me to abandon the band so heartlessly! I wasn't alone apparently, as the Brooklyn band recently broke up after a 13 year run. Perhaps the presence of a solo album this year, I Don't Know My Words, from band co-founder Anand Wilder tells us why they split in the title of his first single as a free man, "Delirium Passes." The song is about a divorce and the relief that can follow initially, only to be replaced by an underlying sadness later. I suppose, the same emotions can follow the dissolution of a band, Thankfully, a gloriously sublime chorus is waiting to lead wayward fans back into the fold. While I'm not quite ready to proclaim Wilder's single life a rousing success just yet, the breakup has clearly given him the chance at a fresh start.
04 TEARS FOR FEARS | "My Demons"
Sometimes it's hard to understand how good a band is when you are introduced to them smack dab in the middle of their moment of overwhelming success. You're so smothered by their ubiquitous hit songs, it's easy to get thrown off the scent of their true songwriting talents. Generally, I have tried not to fall victim to this closed-minded approach, but I do admit to overlooking the writing skills of the braintrust behind Tears for Fears' greatest moments, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, when they were dominating radio in the mid-80s. Many years later, long freed of my overly dismissive adolescence, I found I had renewed affection for their early singles, especially "Mad World," even though I do prefer the haunting cover version from the film Donnie Darko (performed by Michael Andrews & Gary Jules) better than their version from The Hurting, their debut record. I also now love "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and "Head Over Heels" and, to a lesser degree, "Shout," from their blockbuster LP, Songs From the Big Chair. The duo could certainly write the hits, but I found that the more you delve into their albums, the more substance and depth you will find. These guys knew what they were doing. And that natural ability continues to this day on The Tipping Point, their first record since 2004. It doesn't sound like a comeback record at all. It just sounds like a worthy new record in a continuing career that will reward those (like me) that might've assumed their best work was behind them. "My Demons" is an outlier on a relatively sedate and moody record, but that makes its presence all the more jarring. It also, in a way, ties their early career to their older world-wise selves by acknowledging that their demons, famously a catalyst for much of their earlier work (you don't write a song like "Mad World" without some serious damage in your past), are still simmering under the surface, The fact they clarify "my demons don't get out that much" indicates that those very same skeletons are still in a closet somewhere waiting for just the right time to pounce. Living on a razor's edge like that tends to keep you sharp. Which explains their continued vitality today, a long journey from their presumed heyday.
05 THE JAZZ BUTCHER | "Melanie Hargreaves' Father's Jaguar"
The pandemic has given me time to investigate and/or reconsider some artists I haven't made enough time for to date. In the past year, I've been femur deep in the recordings of the Jazz Butcher, the vehicle for the output of the disappointingly-named British eccentric, Pat Fish. With a deep catalog, it has been a lot to take in all at once, but his greatest moments have been a joy to discover. I've repeatedly castigated myself in past months for sleeping on his recorded output so long, but better late than never. He's the village oddball, falling somewhere in the middle of a long line of charming English storytellers like the Kinks, John Cooper Clarke, Blur, Robyn Hitchcock, and many others known for their combination of sharp wit and endearing oddness. I've found a goldmine of songs in the process and I must make you a mixtape of my favorites soon (I promise). And then, as if luring me into his peculiar world was the last thing on his bucket list, he dropped dead of a heart attack on October 5, 2021. Isn't that always how it goes? Coincidence acknowledged, I still felt the loss like I'd been a fan for years, even though I'm a relative newcomer to his work. As it turns out, and to my benefit, he had an album in the can at the time of his death—and it's an absolute gem! The perfect endcap artistic statement for the venerable, eclectic old shit. Throughout his career, Fish was a clever songwriter and a surprisingly effective singer considering his limited vocal range. He was also a melodist capable of dabbling credibly in almost any style of music he attempted. The Highest in the Land is a fitting conclusion to the Jazz Butcher story. It reminds me a bit of Leonard Cohen's masterful later-period albums in a way. He's showing his age a bit, possibly a bit weary, but eminently comfortable in his current skin as well. Like with Cohen, age and hard-earned wisdom have combined to leave us with a perfect dinner companion, one that can keep a table of guests captivated long after the table has been cleared. I can only imagine sitting there, listening to the story of "Melanie Hargreaves Father's Jaguar," hanging on every word.
06 CMAT | "Peter Bogdanovich"
Not the best timing by Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson (hence CMAT) and her new album, the infuriatingly titled
If My Wife New [sic] I'd Be Dead. The record contains this yearning paean to film director and actor Peter Bogdanovich, but was ultimately released just a month after the famous director died in January at the age of 82. Known for directing a wide range of classic films like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Mask, the Tom Petty documentary Runnin' Down a Dream, and one of my favorite yet lesser known movies, The Thing Called Love, about young country singers trying to make it in Nashville, Bogdanovich was probably still known first as Tony Soprano's psychiatrist's psychiatrist on The Sopranos. So he qualifies as fawn-worthy for sure, but he isn't an obvious target for the affections of a cheeky 26-year-old Irish singer with a twisted sense of humor. In the song, CMAT pines over the director, wishing he was "a wife leaver" and a "right cheater" despite the fact that he hasn't even been married since 2001.* The girl's a bit of a oddball, but her songs, and the rest of her really entertaining new record, benefit from her skewed perspective on life.
*There is a chance the song was written from the perspective of someone else from a time when Peter was still married, but who that could be is anyone's guess.
07 MÉLISSA LAVEAUX | "Half a Wizard, Half a Witch"
This Haitian-born, Canadian-based singer stormed up to the #2 spot on our 2018 year-end favorite albums list with her third record, Radyo Siwél, a record that combined her native Caribbean rhythms and Creole heritage into a folky blend that begged to played on repeat for hours at a time, so intoxicating was its laid-back, percolating coffeehouse vibe. When I first heard it, I fell in love and that doesn't happen every day. So here we are with the long-awaited, often dreaded, next installment, and it is similarly amazing, even if the element of surprise isn't as impactful. The record has a more modern feel this time, with a more produced approach than before, which is a worry, but only for a few moments once you realize she's still as compelling as ever. "Half a Wizard, Half a Witch," which connotes a possible combination of Todd Rundgren and Stevie Nicks in its title, is a fine example of where she's at these days. It may not be as seductively simple as her last album, but Melissa's core charm is still here, waiting to seduce you.
08 MATTIEL | "Cultural Criminal"
Atlanta's Mattiel Brown has been around since 2017 and every time I tune into her frequency, she's doing something cool with her songwriting that turns my head. Her debut featured a personal favorite, "Count Your Blessings," that sounded like an indie-rock Bond theme. Its follow up, Satis Factory, demonstrated serious growth, highlighted by another Pickled Priest Songs of the Year selection, "Food For Thought," which combined cool spoken word verses with a wicked little chorus. Her natural ability to add just the right melodic and lyrical twists to make things interesting has now manifested itself in her latest and best record, Georgia Gothic.* It should be said that Mattiel is actually a duo—Mattiel and partner Jonah Swilley—but she's the main attraction here. There are eleven songs with not a bum track in the bunch. In the past, I've gravitated to one or two songs, but here the whole thing holds up. I could pick any one of them, but I like the concept of "Cultural Criminal." Are you a cultural criminal? Are you supporting artists like Mattiel by buying records, going to concerts, picking up a t-shirts, etc.? If not, go directly to jail, do not press play.
*I also appreciate the goofy cover, which reminds me conceptually of the Louvin Brothers' classic Satan Is Real cover from back in 1959. Could two album covers make the devil seem more unthreatening?
09 APRIL MARCH | "Rolla Rolla"
April March originally released In Cinerama on Record Store Day last year with a very limited number of copies available to the public. I was happy to snag one and it's a snappy little record without a bum song in the bunch. Now that it has been formally released (by Omnivore Recordings), the rest of the world can catch up with her latest batch of hip retro-pop. She's most known thanks to her version of "Chick Habit" (known originally as "Laisse tomber les filles" by Serge Gainsbourg, but with English lyrics supplied by March) which was prominently featured in Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse feature, Death Proof. The 56-year-old singer (what!?) is able to make even the most simple song sound sweet and catchy at will. "Rolla Rolla" is a great example that will get into your cranium for days. Good luck getting it out of there.
10 DESTROYER | "June"
The miracle of Dan Bejar's songwriting is that you're never quite sure where he's been or where he's going. His wildly creative songs even stood out amongst those written by his genius bandmate in the New Pornographers, A.C. Newman. Not an easy task. There's really no explanation or directions supplied for his music and that's a good thing. Maybe that's why he titled his 13th (!) album with his band Destroyer, Labyrinthitis. Is this finally how we can codify our experience listening to his music? If it is, this is the best kind of disease you can get. One where the path is never clear, the intent often hazy, the surroundings deliriously disorienting. I was driving through the city in the rain the other night with "June" as my companion and I played it over and over again, marveling at the audacity of its creation, complete with its forays into fractured disco and the burning sensation that an album's worth of songs had been blended into one six-minute mini-masterpiece.
11 LADY WRAY | "Piece of Me"
Nicole Monique Wray, California born, Virginia raised, has had a long road to her excellent new album Piece of Me. Twenty years ago she found herself with a gold record called "Make it Hot" under the name Nicole Ray. Not my thing really. She also worked and toured with Missy Elliott for a bit, but she mostly toiled in relative obscurity for the better part of two decades before coming onto my radar in 2013 via her collaboration with British soul singer Terri Walker in an amazing group called Lady. The band's self-titled debut (sadly their only record to date) made my year-end Top 20 Albums list back then and I still love it today. I recently found a vinyl copy and I would rank it as one of my all-time favorite sleeper records if anyone would ever ask me for one (nobody ever does). Then she decided to take her career in another direction complete with a new name, Lady Wray, and the results have been impressive. The title track is a modern soul classic (as is "Come On In," another song that wanted to be put on this mixtape). To this soul loving record fanatic, it not only holds up with the classic singles of yore, it stands right there next to them. While it sounds contemporary, there's no escaping the natural talent that has always been there, simmering, waiting for its moment to properly shine. That time is now.
12 ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS | "The Boy Named If"
I've loved and tolerated Elvis in equal doses over the years, but his new Imposters-backed record, The Boy Named If, sounds to me like a statement of virility. Elvis and the boys prove they can still bring a potent depth charge when they choose to and it's great to hear them letting loose again. Of course, the songwriting is also top-notch, with several instant late-period classics included that sound more than worthy of a place next to the man's esteemed early-period classics. The title track in particular floats my boat, but it only scratches the surface on what is perhaps my favorite original Elvis album in a long while.
13 RZA & DJ SCRATCH | "Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater"
RZA, and his cronies in the Wu-Tang Clan, don't need to prove their Kung Fu bona-fides. They've done more to promote the culture than just about any other musicians on the planet. So, this homage to Saturday afternoons watching sensationalistic karate movies, and I've watched my share, is a natural thematic area for RZA to revisit and fondly recall. There are some killer rhymes on this track and all over the rest of the record, but I was won over by his repeated and inexplicable references to National Lampoon's Animal House during the chorus. I don't know how it fits into the theme and I don't really care. The guy can make anything sound cool.
14 SPRINTS | "Im In a Band"
The best "I'm in a Band" song of all time is likely Art Brut's hysterical and endearing "Formed a Band," but this one from Dublin's Sprints, off their great new EP, A Modern Job, is a worthy sequel. Every one of the five songs on the EP could be on this list, but I love a song that references the absurdity of actually being in a rock band, which this one does brilliantly. When you're in a band you have to act cool about it, but deep down you want to shout it from the rooftops. "I'm in a band! Yeah!"
Note: Song title doesn't contain an apostrophe. Deal with it.
15 THE ROXIES | "Underdog"
Every country seems to have better rock bands than the US right now. Real bands still trying to capture that old CBGBs lightning in a beer bottle. Even the fucking Krauts have us beat! C'mon America! Respond! The Roxies prove themselves on their very Ramones-esque titled LP, Don't Wanna Dance Because I'm Told To. Granted, they pinched an English lead singer along the way, but the beat is all German, without a man-machine or a computer world in sight. Just good old fashioned garage rock—11 songs in 34 minutes just like they used to do it back in the day. "Underdog" is the track that kicks off the whole affair, but there's another six or seven cult classics awaiting you later. Gute Arbeit meine Fruende!
16 PINCH POINTS | "Reasons to Be Anxious"
When will the Aussie punk-rock gas tank run out of petrol? They dominated the rock category of my year-end list last year (Pist Idiots, Stiff Richards, Civic, Nick Cave, Amyl & the Sniffers) and now they give us Pinch Points, a band of socially conscious, solution-based post-punks from Melbourne. And they see the world, especially their immediate surroundings, for what it is—fucked up by big money and corrupt politicians. No wonder the album kicks off with the brand new punk anthem "Reasons to Be Anxious." In this day and age, there are lots of triggers. Even the thought of confronting them in therapy brings anxiety, which makes sense. The album keeps that feeling throughout, but what I really like is that they check in with you now and then to see how you're doing, best exemplified by the mid-album track "Am I Okay?" which basically tells you it's OK to question your own sanity. Later, they end with "Relentlessly Positive," which seems to say that the world, fucked up as it may be, is also entirely worth fighting for, which is something we should all remember and hold dear.
17 GRIM STREAKER | "Mind"
Brooklyn's Grim Streaker are on to something with their new EP, Mind, released in early March. Promoting self-care, the titular track advocates for all to protect their mind first before doing anything else. The prescription is simple: "Take care of yourself, take care of your health, talk to yourself, start with your mind." That it's housed in an ultra-cool club mix that wouldn't sound out of place in a chic New York dance club only makes the pills easier to swallow.
18 SPOON | "Held"
For the first time in my life
I let myself be held, yeah, like a big old baby
-"Held" by Smog
I really like the idea of someone being big enough to cradle me like a little baby now and again. Perhaps that's this song's main attraction for me. Credit Spoon's Britt Daniel for having an ear sharp enough to see the potential in "Held," a song from Smog's Knock Knock album from way back in 1999. The original, on an album I've owned for over 20 years, doesn't jump out at you as a great potential rock song in the making, but sure enough, the veterans in Spoon have done just that. When I listen to Bill Callahan's original now it starts to make some sense retroactively. The guitars have hints of those trademarked clanging riffs Spoon is known for and the lyrics, economical and vague, also match Daniel's writing style. I should've seen it coming, really. The band's name is Spoon, after all. The most ergonomic of positions in which to be held.
19 BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD | "Chaos Space Marine"
I wasn't completely won over by the heavily-hyped but appropriately-named debut record, For the First Time, by this English post post-rock band. It had moments of brilliance for sure, but at times it seemed to be trying too hard (especially "Science Fair" and all that bullshit about being "the world's second best Slint tribute act"). That said, there was no denying the promise present when all that bluster could be tamed and the quirk suppressed (see "Instrumental" from same album). Well, that happened this year with Ants From Up There, a substantially better album in all ways that hinted at an almost unlimited amount of future promise. And then, out of the blue, their creative force and main vocalist, Isaac Wood, left the band. A planned tour was scrapped and the band has gone back to the drawing board to figure out what to do next. He's going to be a big missing piece if and when the band moves forward, that's for sure. But at least they've left us with one great record and several amazing songs like "Chaos Space Marine," all of them perplexing and beyond human understanding.
20 A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS | "Let's See Each Other"
It's hard to believe this Brooklyn band has been around for twenty years already. Their debut record sounded like they were already about to self-destruct or careen into a cement median or something equally chaotic. That said, it was a trip to listen to, especially if you're predisposed to cacophonous, grinding, scraping, ear-splitting noise like we are here at Pickled Priest. They seem to be getting better as they age if their new record, See Through You, is any indication. It's their most "accessible" album to date, which doesn't mean you won't be white-knuckling it here and there. Hell, it even contains a love song, the menacing "Let's See Each Other," and you've never been romanced quite like this before, I assure you. If it proves anything, it's that there's someone out there for everyone. You just might have to look in places most fear to go to find it. You know who you are.
21 YARD ACT | "Tall Poppies"
I'm always a little suspicious of Britain's "next big thing." They seem to have an endless supply of bands to hype and I've been burned before many times. But the reason you check out each and every is because sometimes they're right. Yard Act is one of those bands. They're not necessarily original either, what with their spoken vocal approach and post-punk guitars, but what I like most is their ability to tell a compelling story. "Tall Poppies" alone proves the band is for real. It tells the story of a handsome boy who soon becomes a big fish in a small pond, but never leaves the small village he was born in. Instead, we hear of his athletic prowess, his job selling real estate, his new wife and subsequent kids, and the inevitable marital troubles ("In the hopes of stoking the coals of two long lost souls / Which comes first, counseling or keys in the bowl?). The ambitious song ends with his inevitable death and funeral, memorialized by a park bench erected in his honor by the water's edge complete with his name and a quote from the lyrics from a song he's never heard. Apparently "he wasn't too fond of long songs with a lot of words." Very meta, considering the song is over six-minutes in length and densely packed with vignettes from his life story. Low-grade genius, I tell ya.
22 NILÜFER YANYA | "Stabilise"
This London-based artist has a unique genetic makeup, with strands from Ireland, Barbados and Turkey, so it's not surprising that her music sounds like nobody else's. Yanya makes very accessible pop songs that move with the relentless pace of a late-night taxi ride through dense traffic, matching adrenalin with danger, rapid acceleration with sudden unexpected zigs and zags. "Stabilise" is one such example, taking off on a moody guitar riff that Interpol fans would love, and then tearing off into the night as if she's in a getaway car. I love pop music...when it sounds as original and adventurous as this.
23 AOIFE O'DONOVAN | "B61"
Based on Aoife (EE-fah) O'Donovan's name alone (a "u" away from vowel bingo), the presence of Irish blood in her veins might not surprise you. The fact she was born and raised in Boston might. And to add to her East Coast credentials, she wrote "B61" about Brooklyn's crosstown bus line which finds her taking a long melancholy trip to seek out a lost love near the Hudson River ("Love is a daily good thing," she croons). It's a wistful tale and her voice is up to the task. It's light as a feather, but impactful, stunning in its simplistic grace. The whole album captures that similar captivating essence and demands your full attention.
24 JEAN-MICHEL BLAIS | "Passepied"
Exciting on Airpods, enthralling on headphones, and life-changing on a big stereo system, Jean-Michel Blais's new record, Aubades, is perhaps the most amazing piece of music I've heard this year. It's not in my usual wheelhouse, which makes it stand out all the more. So how did I get here, then? Well, I love instrumental music for one. And I've dabbled in classical music to the point where I have way more of it than the average person on the street (that's not saying much). But I've never been drawn to the the sanitized, tuxedo-and-tails, tap-tap-tap of the conductors baton world of classical music. Of course, it's awesome to behold when done well, especially in person, but Jean-Michel's approach seems more organic and human to me. The record where I discovered his music was called II and came out in 2016. It featured a solo Jean-Michel playing an upright piano in the middle of his apartment's living room and the recording made it seem like you were right there on his couch listening. Ambient street sounds would occasionally drift onto the recording and you could even hear the sound of his feet working the pedals. It sounded real and spontaneous, the best possible thing you could stumble upon while walking down a side street in downtown Montreal. Then he got evicted for playing his piano all the time. The fucking neighbors got him booted! There's even a photo online of his upright piano wrapped for the move. It was heartbreaking. I would've killed to hear his playing through my thin apartment walls. I think. Well, not at 2:00am on a Tuesday. Perhaps I, too, would've got tired of him and voted for his ouster. But one thing I don't get tired of is his new album, especially "Passipied," which takes me by surprise every time I hear it. It takes that organic simplicity I fell in love with and adds an epic sweep without losing any of that intimate magic he captured years earlier in his apartment. It's more grand in all ways and it's simply glorious to behold.
25 DEDICATED MEN OF ZION | "Rock My Soul"
Take me to church! I've always claimed you can love religious music without being religious just as you can hate to dance but love dance music. As it turns out, I love declarations of faith and people giving themselves up to a higher power. There's something magical about it. I wish I had it in me. Lord knows I've tried. But had my boyhood church featured the Dedicated Men of Zion every Sunday, I know this much is true—I would've never fucking left. Even if I didn't believe, I would have stayed for the tunes. I would have paid for my ticket via the offering basket and settled in for some amazing gospel music. As fans of Al Green, Sam Cooke and countless others know, the distance between non-secular and secular is as short as the gap between soul and gospel. Often, it comes down to a few choice words. Remove the "baby" and insert "lord" and you're there. This is a soul album at its core and it's a mighty stirring one at that. If you're not paying close attention, you won't know if it is Saturday night or Sunday morning. "Rock My Soul" could easily have traveled here from the soul rack of a mid-70s record store just as easily as it could have emanated from the windows of a Baptist church.
26 CHARLOTTE ADIGÉRY & BOLIS PUPUL | "Haha"
This is how our mixtape has to end—there's no other choice. A spliced and diced three-minute track featuring a woman laughing along with a stuttering beat is all it is, but it brings me joy every time, so this is how I want to go out. In truth, picking this above all the other amazing tracks on Topical Dancer, the new record from Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, is an affront to the album itself, which is sonically and lyrically ambitious, but doesn't come off as overdone. If anything, it thrives on its minimalism. The rest of its somehow not-too-long 51-minutes is loaded with one eye-opening sonic marvel after another. An album that will end up on a shit-ton of year-end lists to be sure.
Well, that's it for this quarter. Perhaps we'll need to do these more often so we can give time to the many great songs that have been left on the cutting room floor. If this is how 2022 is going to go, the year-end recap is going to be an absolute bitch. If I made a Top 25 right now, I'd be happy with it. And there's a full nine months to go. Game on.