Table of Contents
Four of our critics weighed in on their favorite local albums from 2022. When you crowdsource a list like this, it can be hard to find a throughline. But each person’s choices tell their own story. From Noble, you hear the vast stylistic range of Massachusetts hip-hop and its vitality. Karen Muller offers the lovely symmetry of a new band’s stunning debut and an established band’s eloquent goodbye. Charley Ruddell shows us the endurance of the Boston underground. And Amelia Mason’s two picks are both women who find unique ways into common themes, often with a feminist bent.
If there is a throughline to be found, it’s that Boston is no longer the epicenter it once was — or, at least, that we assumed it to be. Several artists have left Boston for smaller (and cheaper) New England locales, like Providence, Rhode Island and Burlington, Vermont. Others represent the growing clout of Massachusetts’ mid-sized cities, like Brockton and Springfield. No doubt this is related to Boston’s perpetually booming real estate market, which has caused the closure of practice spaces and clubs and made the city unaffordable to many musicians. But it also points to an eternal fact that we tend to overlook: that great talent can come from anywhere.
On her sophomore album “Til It’s Gone,” Ali McGuirk leads with her strength: her voice. She opens the album a cappella, husky alto cradled in three-part harmony. McGuirk is a powerful singer, and on “Til It’s Gone” she leans on the classic soul and R&B that serve her best. A crack band of seasoned session musicians makes it easy to imagine how this record will shine in a concert hall. But “Til It’s Gone” is more than just a showcase of musicianship. McGuirk brings a songwriter’s sensibility, and a millennial’s perspective, to her lyrics. Songs that take on conventional themes, like relationships and desire, gesture obliquely at gendered power dynamics. At times, McGuirk strikes a conversational tone that can be bracingly direct. Take, for instance, “The Work,” which contains the lines: “But I saw you read the news today/ Pull out the parts that prove your pain/ Others gonna do the same.” In just a few deft strokes, McGuirk paints a devastating and deeply human picture of our polarized political climate. Her ultimate message is hopeful — not a balm, but a call to action: “We got to do the work,” she sings, voice resonating with all that can’t be expressed in words alone. It’s so complicated, she seems to say, and yet so simple. — Amelia Mason
Boston’s FUNERAL Ant Bell is one of the city’s voices spreading wisdom with his music. He keeps a calm tone that gets stern when his passion peaks so his words are undeniably felt. I love being able to learn new things from a rapper. As a listener of music, I have to have balance. As I get older, I’m not just looking for party music. Messaging is important. And FUNERAL Ant Bell is helping me find that balance. His project “There’s Glory in the Fire, Vol. 1” features 11 songs that total 35 minutes and there are life gems all throughout the listen. “City of Champions” is my favorite song on the project because of the heavy Boston pride it evokes. “We’re built for it when we come together/ We’re the Boston Bomber Survivors/ That’s on Dead Dawgs!” (If you are from Boston, for real, you know of the seriousness of saying “Dead Dawgs”.) FUNERAL Ant Bell is poised to have supporters that will stick with him because he’s stayed true to himself and the raps have only gotten better since he first hit the scene years ago. The listen wouldn’t be in vain with this new body of work. — Noble
Perspective, A Lovely Hand To Hold, ‘Phantasmagorialand‘
Perspective, A Lovely Hand To Hold has hinted that its latest album, “Phantasmagorialand,” will be the band’s last—and if so, it’s an impressive note to end on. The Nashua, New Hampshire four-piece grew from DIY emo origins, but the new record is as strange and adventurous as its name suggests. Album opener “The Loosening of Limbs” offers a sample of what’s to come: a whirlwind of squelching synths, electronic squeals, flashy drum fills, and subdued vocals giving way to sudden melodic outbursts. The guitars don’t really kick in until the next song, “Still (Everyday),” a yell-your-head-off anxiety anthem that manages to sound life-affirming while mourning future regrets. It’s one of a few big rock numbers on a record that’s equally dedicated to pop exploration. Math-y guitar filigrees, bellowed lyrics and skittering riffs live happily alongside handclaps, Beach Boys-esque harmonies and experimental interludes. Secret messages, too: closing track “The Executionist” transmits the Morse-code message that “It’s hard to be wise and in love at the same time.” At just over 25 minutes, it’s all a lot to take in, but it’s the year’s best record that occasionally channels a melting carnival ride. — Karen Muller
Vundabar’s Brandon Hagen told me back in April that the concept behind the Boston indie rock trio’s patient, yet prickly “Devil For The Fire” was about “getting lost in the sauce.” There’s plenty of ways to interpret that, but the cerebral and saturated album they’ve presented couldn’t be about anything else. “Devil For The Fire” is a ride of sorts, a dreamy journey down endless roads deep inside the mind, spurred by Hagen’s father’s stroke he suffered during the recording sessions. A coincidental interest in neuroplasticity around this period yielded songs brimming with surrealist imagery and clever metaphors, an ideal pairing for music that oscillates between both “Turn On the Bright Lights”-era Interpol and late ‘70s British post-punk. Such a heady effort from the Boston indie mainstays proves to be one of the more compelling rock releases of the year in my book. — Charley Ruddell
Dorren Pierre, ‘Duality‘
For years, creatives in the communities outside of Boston felt like being embraced in the city was a tall task. That sentiment has been changing over the past few years, though, with talents like Joyner Lucas or DTheFlyest helping to change some minds. Springfield’s Dorren Pierre is a standout hip-hop talent from the western side of the state. His wittiness and music-making ability do the tango on both songs on his project “Duality,” a two-track EP released back in March. “All your vibes are suspect/ How could I trust that? I barely trust self/ I think I need help/I fell in love for the second time,” he raps on “Suspect.” The stories of a paranoid bachelor willing to dissect his thoughts for the listener. Only your perception would determine his level of worry. “Suspect” and “Minding My Own” are perfect introductions to Dorren Pierre. “Suspect” opens the gates with a smoother laid back vibe while “Minding My Own” is a speaker knocker. While the latter is the more popular song according to Apple music, both tunes are worth the time. — Noble
Of the Horse Jumper of Love releases, “Natural Part” is undoubtedly their most realized. The Boston slowcore trio went delicate and textured on their stellar third release, expanding their idiosyncratic sound with warm synth layers and shimmering guitar parts, grounded as always by an immovable rhythm section. “Ding Dong Ditch” perhaps best represents the band at their current juncture, the once-basement-show favorites on the precipice of being an indie-darling: Crunchy, dissonant guitar riffs as segues between charming verse melodies and post-hardcore breakdowns. The members of Horse Jumper of Love have come a long way from Allston’s house show scene to the lofty critic admiration they hold now, but they haven’t lost a stitch of what made them such a scene-staple in the first place. They’re still the same band, but the vision just keeps getting richer. — Charley Ruddell
It’s easy to see why Lady Pills’ “What I Want” was instantly cast as a feminist reclamation of power. Written by frontwoman Ella Boissonnault, who also played most of the instruments, the album contains lightly misandrist lines like “Poor man, is this so hard for you?” and withering kiss-offs such as “The problem with your love was/ There was always the condition of/ Never being too loud.” But my favorite thing about Boissonnault’s writing is how utterly herself she is as she follows some of her strangest impulses to occasionally hilarious effect. Inevitably, this intuitive process lands her somewhere more interesting and truthful than more ordinary methods might. The music mimics this tendency, eschewing indie rock convention in quirky melodies that stick ruthlessly in the ear. It’s an impressive achievement, especially considering that Lady Pills nearly folded when the band’s only other regular member left the group. Instead, Boissonnault put her faith in herself, and the results speak — peculiarly, delightfully — for themselves. — Amelia Mason
Van Buren Records, ‘DSM‘
Brockton hip-hop has risen. The city is the home of many current favorites within Massachusetts. Van Buren Records is undeniably in the mix, a collective of rappers and music makers that have no problem being in your face to get their point across. You might even catch them personally handing out flyers to their next show, respecting the traditional street team marketing style. The 11 members when together have a crazy Wu-Tang-like vibe in terms of the many separate personalities effortlessly melding together. Their newest project, “DSM,” is a 53-minute compilation of high-tempo raps, flow switches, hard-hitting beat production and high-level storytelling (with a hint of Griselda via Conway The Machine on the standout song “The Source”). For fans of rap, this project should leave you fed and happy. The authenticity oozing out of Van Buren Records is refreshing. Take a listen to “FOUL,” “God Talking” and “The Army, The Navy,” for a well-balanced introduction to the world of VB. “My pockets gaining weight and I ain’t even sell my soul for it,” says Luke Bar$ on “God Talking,” hinting at just how much these creatives are willing to stand up for their style. After the success of “Bad for Press” in 2021, their formula continues to be working. Long live Van Buren. — Noble
Mint Green’s first full-length album was a long time coming: The Somerville-based indie pop band has been honing its sound since 2015, polishing punchy, punky arrangements into sleek ones. Now signed to Pure Noise Records, the group’s official debut offers a fresh take on a catchy sound inspired by bands like Paramore and Tigers Jaw. Bandleader and guitarist Ronnica sings with a warmth and openheartedness that brings plainspoken lyrics to life, but her voice takes on a razor-sharp edge in the album’s most urgent moments. Backed by glimmering keys and a driving rhythm, single “Body Language” highlights the group’s talent for irresistible melodies, but they’re just as effective when they take the tempo down, as on the tense, building “Golden.” — Karen Muller
Before making the move to Rhode Island, Kal Marks was one of Boston’s most caustic bands, shaking the foundation of the city from the underground. Following a brief hiatus and a lineup change, Kal Marks, fronted by Carl Shane, embodied an everyman attitude on its brand of noise rock, a sort of working-man outlook flanked by a jaundiced view of humanity. “My Name Is Hell,” the group’s turbulent fifth album, shows a band thriving through a rebuild with unabashed intensity. Whereas the Kal Marks of the 2010s stood steadily in a bullish haze, the newly-minted quartet feels unfastened in a speeding vehicle, deploying whirring guitar noise and a pounding rhythm section under the authority of Shane’s guttural snarl. Album opener “My Life is a Freak Show” best encapsulates the cantankerous energy of the group; “My life is a freak show/ I got no place to go!” Shane squeals in a whirl of kinetic noise. It’s this kind of reckless abandon that feels so appropriate to serve as a soundtrack to such a crazy year. — Charley Ruddell