Words by Luke LaBenne
Luke LaBenne is an Off Shelf contributor and co-host of the Best Song Ever Podcast, where he and Kevin play and discuss their favorite new music. On the pod, he’s known as “Lyrical Lukey” and loves analyzing the crafting of a songs lyrics and finding nuances and details that casual listeners miss. He is an avid music consumer and a musician under the name Indie Darling (on the socials @indiedarlingmusic). Here are his top ten albums in ascending order.
For years Kendrick has been the reigning champ of hip hop, he can top the charts but also feels like a man of the people whose music connects directly to his fans. Sometimes Kendrick’s presence in a Top 10 list is dismissed as music that’s too heady or conscious, which is not untrue since Kendrick is an incredibly deep thinker. However, on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, he delivers one of his most stylistically eclectic tracklists. This is honestly one of the most interesting sounding hip hop albums I’ve heard in years. Tangible piano pings and stomping percussion are seamlessly blended with thundering bass and slick atmospheric electronics. He unpacks his trauma and comes to terms with his own personal struggles but he also delivers some lighter, catchier jams that still have thoughtful lyrical content but still a solid groove. This album is simultaneously Kendrick’s most accessible and most powerful album. He dedicates whole songs to topics other rappers shy away from like his loved ones’ transitions, his father issues, substance abuse and sexual abuse. As always he can deliver a gut punch with a softly spoken lyric and can perfectly sum up sentiments that even the most poetic writers would struggle to articulate. After all of the turmoil of the past few years hearing Kendrick’s voice again felt reassuring. Though he doesn’t shy away from the darkness of life he provides moments of healing and triumph making this a beautiful and balanced work that the world truly needed.
When I first heard Big Thief in 2016 their electric guitar indie-rock sounds fit in with a lot of other bands at that time. Over the course of 5 albums they’ve grown into the folk-rock juggernaut that we find on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. This album brings both quantity and quality with 20 songs packed with thought-provoking philosophical lyrics, heavenly harmonies and all manner of folky organic instruments (they even use a Jaw Harp on one song). This album is all over the place in the best way possible from jaunty full-band folk tunes with group vocals to atmospheric fingerpicked ballads to feedback-laden electric guitar jams akin to the band’s early work. This album also provides comfort and healing without sugarcoating the harsh realities of life. It feels just as vintage and traditional as it does modern and relatable. It’s existential, cosmic, comforting, personal and playful. It gives us something to believe in when “there is no reason to believe.”
When producer L’Orange and vocalist Solemn Brigham released their first album as Marlowe in 2018 it was clear they were a dream duo. L’Orange is an expert in assembling vintage samples plumbed from the depths of record crates and Brigham came out the gate with unmistakable earworm melodies and astounding verbal acrobatics. On their third entry together they are at the height of their powers. Not only do they bring high-energy bangers that we’ve come to expect like “Royal” and “My People” but some of the more mellow tracks like “Light Trip” and “Lamelo” took me by surprise and became some of my favorite moments on the album. This album is a feast of fascinating sounds for lovers of sample-based composition with dusty twangy guitars, epic horns and all manner of old audio clips and manipulated vocals. Brigham’s comical Eddy Appetite character returns and helps add to their signature old-timey sideshow act vibe. Marlowe is one of my favorite duos making music today and I hope that we’ll see a lot more to come from these two.
After releasing a handful of impressive and acclaimed albums, including an amazing collaboration with Kenny Beats, Denzel Curry could take a victory lap but instead, he pushes his talents even further resulting in his best work yet. Curry wowed fans with the epic, cinematic video for “Walkin” not only were the visuals stunning but Denzel’s lyrics were ambitious and all-encompassing while feeling personal and vulnerable. The album delivers on the promise of the singles and videos: incredible and eclectic production, with Denzel doing astounding verbal gymnastics while delivering a powerful message and making all seem effortless. From jazzy journeys to throbbing bass bangers to vintage-sounding sample-based earworms Denzel deftly tailors his verse to the vibe of the song and goes to surprising places. He expertly examines both “The Ills” on the world at large and his own personal challenges and where the two intersect, further establishing himself as one of the great thinkers and poets of our time.
Ever since I heard Teen Dream in 2010, Beach House has been one of my favorite bands to watch. With each new album, they find ways to deeper explore and expand their signature dreamy sound. This year they took it to a new level, working with a full orchestra and delivering a grand, cinematic masterpiece. Victoria LeGrande’s smokey contralto glides over elaborate synth-laden compositions and epic swelling crescendos and the duo adds some instant classics to their already incredible catalog. Not only did they elevate their sound they also had an innovative release schedule, releasing the album separately as EPs before releasing the full album. This band is always finding ways to push their signature sound into new territories and with Once Twice Melody they take it to a whole new level.
6. Taylor Swift – Midnights (Republic Records)
I’m a reformed pop snob, before 2020 you wouldn’t catch me putting Taylor Swift on any year-end list. However, over the years I’ve softened and on her 2020 album Folklore she enlisted the help of The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and won me over. I loved her more stripped-down folky sound on Folklore and Evermore and since this would be Taylor’s return to her pre-pandemic pop sound I wasn’t sure how I would feel. However, on that fateful midnight, I stayed up to listen to Midnights and was immediately engrossed by the sound. She ventured back into more of a pop sound but more of a restrained glossy synth-laden sound, with most of the big obvious pop songs saved for the 3AM deluxe version. Swift’s lyrical abilities have only grown stronger over the past few albums and this album just demonstrates that further. She can tell you a lot in very few words and paint vivid emotional scenes that transport the listener. Though Taylor is one of the biggest stars on the planet she is able to express herself in a way that feels relatable as she deals with universal struggles like getting older, grappling with regrets, and accepting what you can’t change.
One of the things I look for in music is the artist’s ability to surprise me. I love when songs and albums shift and change in unexpected ways. Even better is when an artist or a band completely reinvents themselves and goes in a new direction. That’s what Lucius did on their new album Second Nature. Lucius made quite a first impression on their first album, with folky instrumentals backing up Jeff Wolfe and Holly Laessig’s stunning harmonies and matching haircuts. I saw the duo perform with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and have followed their career so I thought I knew what to expect when listening to their new album. However, from the start of Second Nature, you can hear that this is a new chapter in the band’s story. They venture into funky disco territory which makes for a super fun and danceable listening experience. The album was produced by the amazing Bradi Carlile and the track “Dance Around It” featuring Carlile and Sherly Crow is the epic centerpoint of the album. However, there are some quieter moments and even when the beat is bumping they deliver moving, emotional lyrics. Jess and Holly were both going through the major life changes of motherhood and divorce and they channeled those emotions into an album that invites you to dance through the pain and find a new way to reinvent yourself.
A handful of years ago I started to hear reports that The 1975 was a very good band. I had seen them play on Saturday Night Live and wasn’t into their sound so I had written them off. That was until 2020’s Notes On a Conditional Form boasted features from Phoebe Bridgers and Greta Thunberg, it had an addicting and stylistically diverse tracklist and it made my Top 10 list that year. When their new album came out I thought there was no way it could top the last one but then slowly these songs wormed their way into my head and I became obsessed with this album. While it’s a bit more focused than Notes it still shows some growth from the band. Tracks like “Part of the Band” have a great orchestrated build akin to Lou Reed’s Street Hassel while other tracks like “I’m In Love With You” and “Looking For Somebody To Love” bring the unabashed high-energy pop vibes. I was a skeptical pop snob at first but now I’m fully on board with this band and this album is their best work yet.
This year, we celebrated Dad Rock Summer on the Best Song Ever podcast which entailed us building a playlist with our favorite ’70s and ’80s rock songs. I spent a lot of time this year listening to the likes of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers and other soft rock and disco greats. Hiding In Plan Sight is the album that best replicated that sound and brought that 70’s soft rock vibe to 2022. This is the third album from Michael Collins’ Drugdealer project and while I’ve been a fan of his since 2016’s The Death of Comedy on this album his retro rock sound is perfectly refined. It’s as fun and groovy as it is smooth and beautiful. This album also features Kate Bollinger and Sedona, two artists we played on Best Song Ever this year, and the closing track titled “Posse Cut” gives the album a fun group send-off. Over the past couple of albums, Drugdealer was inching closer and closer to my Top 10 list and with this album, he finally made it and became an artist I will follow closely in the future.
“Feedback massaging my cranium.” That lyric from “Like Exploding Stones” perfectly describes why Kurt Vile makes music and why I listen to his music, to soothe the aches of everyday life with some sweet melodic medicine. Kurt has a distinct style with long meandering songs full of fuzzy and dreamy guitar sounds and his deadpan stoner vocal taking the listener on a clever and unique stream-of-consciousness journey. His music often feels like pure expression, letting the listener walk in his shoes and experience his highs and lows along with him. As a former member of The War on Drugs with a handful of solo albums including a collaboration with Courtney Barnett, Kurt is a true master of his instrument and a musical veteran. His sound on this album is not too different from what you’d find on previous albums, but (watch my moves), as the title indicates, is the best demonstration of what he can do.