Every month our team of expert music curators from around the globe champion the best new music featured in our clients’ playlists through our album reviews, newsletter and EarShot blog.
Keeping our clients’ playlists up to date with shifting times means picking a combination of cutting-edge albums and artists, as well as classic sounds that best suit the wide array of clients’ brand and style needs. From spas and gyms to hotels, award-winning restaurants, airlines, brand name retail stores, shared work spaces, and music and event venues we’re constantly adding handpicked new music to make sure our playlists are unique and our clients stand out from the crowd.
To celebrate fifteen years of Open Ear Music, our team of curators took some time to look back and select fifteen album reviews from our archives that represent some of the best music released over the last decade and a half. Trimming down the list to just these few from the hundreds of reviews hasn’t been an easy process. So much goes into determining why an album is good, impactful, or stands the tests of time and tough decisions were made to try and represent how artists, genres, and our musical culture has been shaped over the years. The collection below features standout debuts from artists who have gone on to even greater things, final works by masters of their craft, albums that changed their genre forever, and at least one album that is already considered a classic. Every one of these albums has been featured in our playlists, along with many more indispensable tracks that we wish we could have featured here.
Diving deeper into a reverb soaked palette of Two-Step beats and Garage sounds rumbling from the distance through the rain, Burial deliver the follow up to their self-titled debut. While there’s still no word on who is behind the tunes, it’s clear their love of UK club and Dub influenced genres runs deep on this bass heavy set. Marked by haunting, fragmentary voices, flitting echoes of strings, and shards of offbeat snare, ‘Untrue’ is an emotionally heavy album that feels at once nostalgic and also cutting-edge. Realist yet cinematic, ‘Untrue’ is likely the most uncanny album of the year, and surely one of the best.
Following hot on the heels of their debut, the latest from Frightened Rabbit is a blunt, heartfelt tale of broken relationships and the heavy weight of loss. Featuring a more expansive sound than their last release, the Indie Folk here is angst-ridden and driving with focus and nervous energy. More buoyant tracks like ‘Old, Old Fashioned’ hint at the Alt- Country of Uncle Tupelo, while album highlight ‘The Modern Leper’ couples robust acoustic guitar chords with a pounding percussive beat to backdrop raw, emotive lyricism with a slab of bible black, self-deprecating humour.
The debut from London’s The XX is as immediately hypnotic an album as you’re likely to hear all year. Pairing icy, reverb-heavy guitar with looping beats, the group deliver a shapeshifting set of Indie Pop that draws as much on Post Punk and R&B as it does on more contemporary Indie sounds. Built on a core of minimalist guitar and bass, the dual vocal parts add a sense of whispered, alluring trepidation. Where the literally titled ‘Intro’ opens with a glassy melody and bold percussion, ‘Crystalised’ finds duelling guitar and bass lines dissolve into a staccato bass line and call and response vocals. Elsewhere, ‘Fantasy’ hints at Dubstep with its deep bass and electronics. It’s a blissful mix that hints at big things to come.
Only the second LP from Gil Scott-Heron in nearly thirty years, and the first in more than half that time, ‘I’m New Here’ is a staggering feat of revival. Known best as a poet and spoken word artist with a cultural-heavy critique, here Scott-Heron turns his focus inwards on a collection that features several covers, including a virtually unrecognisable version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil’. Produced by Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, the album leans into an electronic sound while finding space for stripped down Blues in places like the title track. While ‘On Coming From a Broken Home’ features a Kanye West sample, the highlight is the piano-driven cover of Bobby Bland’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ which is as raw, intimate, and affecting a track as you’ll hear this year. N.b. We’ve subsequently reviewed two separate later versions of this album, both worth checking out; ‘We’re New Here’ a remixed album by Jamie XX, and a wholesale Jazz reworking by Makaya McCraven titled ‘We’re New Again: A Reimagining’. Also worth checking out is the Drake and Rihanna version of ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ titled simply, ‘Take Care’. This album is that influential.
After a series of ever more impressive EPs, the wait for the debut LP from James Blake is over. Shedding some of the club-ready highs, Blake dives into a piano and organ driven collection which loses none of the hefty bass reverberations of his earlier work. Replacing sampled vocals with his own, Blake delves into an intimate and diaristic collection filled with sparse, echoing resonance. On Lindisfarne I and II the warped, delayed vocals give way to a pastoral reworking of the sounds on Blake’s ‘Klavierwerke EP’, while ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ is a rework of Blakes’ father’s own track ‘Where to Turn’. Album highlight, ‘Limit To Your Love’ throws a building piano ballad sideways with a dub bass drop a minute with the effect of drawing the listener in rather than raising their hands in the air. A true about-face from where he came, there much more to come from James Blake.
The second from Kendrick Lamar, and first on a major label, is a breakout release that is a vast and deeply personal tale of growing up around gang violence and the loyalties that bind us to family, friends, and the place we call home. Subtitled ‘A short film by Kendrick Lamar’, the rich narratives feature a strong character arc and dramatic scene setting in Lamar’s hometown of Compton, CA. Leaning on spacious beats and light strings, Lamar throws a range of voices out, regularly hitting double speed, with a flow that twists and turns. A concept album of sorts, there are so many tracks, verses, and bars that stand out that it’s impossible to talk of ‘highlights’. As complete an album, Hip Hop or otherwise, as you’ll hear all year.
Some artists get forgotten. Others get rediscovered. William Onyeabor is, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, in the second camp. It took Eric Welles of Luaka Bop nine months to track down William Onyeabor in Nigeria and then almost five years to finally release a compilation of his greatest funk-inspired tracks. Filled with drum machines and analogue synthesisers, Onyeabor’s fantastic funk has been praised by Caribou’s Dan Snaith and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. We can’t stop spinning this one either.
Having been around for a fair while it’s nice to see Todd Terje eventually releasing a full length LP even if some of the tracks will be familiar to both dancefloors and fans. The title, in many ways, says all that needs to be said as Terje connects Electro, Disco and House cuts together into an upbeat and broadly instrumental record. The collaboration with Bryan Ferry on a cover of Robert Palmer’s ‘Johnny and Mary’ may be new but the older ‘Inspector Norse’, with its synth-driven classic House sound, is the highlight here. Check out that Bryan Ferry collaboration here.
When murky R&B meets slick production, we tend to take notice. At its best it’s a style that has a certain edge while sticking to standard song structures, and this can create unusual and intriguing juxtapositions in the right hands. The Weeknd certainly has those hands, as his crossover success, almost despite himself, shows. His lyrics might revolve around pretty thin allusions to sex and drugs, and the upfront assurance that he’s ‘for real’ may be grating, but the popular and critical success speak for themselves. Unlike other dark R&B albums with a focus on grit and ego, Beauty Behind the Madness does not simply latch Hip Hop beats to sung melodies. Instead it taps into the harder edge of Pop and the more vocal forms of Electronica, filled with bass heavy rumbles and dramatic synth stabs. Tracks such as ‘Real Life’ would make good bedfellows alongside big hitters like CHVRCHES or FKA twigs. Check out ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ to see what we mean.
Sensitivity is the order of the day when reviewing an album by any late great, even more so when events unfold as they have over the last week or so. But then, it’s easier to do so when we can take the lead of the album’s maker. Across a career of shifting styles, buttons pushed, and boundaries broken, David Bowie was always sensitive to his audience. This remained true on this final album which serves up new directions, obvious debts to his own musical past, and clear flags of its key influences. It’s archetypal Bowie, and Blackstar, like so many before it, is a complete album worth indulging in. We’re picking no highlight on this one; go and give the album a go.
It may feel like this one has been long in the making such is the anticipation that has built while Kelela released an EP, a mixtape, and guested on numerous gorgeous tracks by Daedelus, Kindness, and Gorillaz. On ‘Take Me Apart’, as on her previous outings, Kelela’s future looking R&B sounds one step ahead of the rest of her contemporaries. From opening track 'Frontline' chilling electronics mix with bass beats while Kelela’s soulful vocals stand up to the best of the genre. More soulful than fellow Warp Records artist Jessy Lanza, less forceful than FKA twigs, Kelela moves R&B forward in one great leap. Don’t miss this one.
Based on a 13th century tale of romance gone very wrong, Rosalía’s ‘El Mal Querer’ is a story of damaged love played out in a uniquely contemporary manner. Rooted in Catalan folk but plugged in to Reggaeton, Rihanna, and most explicitly modern R&B, ‘El Mal Querer’ is where Flamenco meets Bass culture. It’s an album of twists and turns, sampling revving engines on ‘De Aquí No Sales’, referencing Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’ on ‘Bagdad’ and dropping a cappella on album closer ‘A Ningún Hombre’. Blurring lines between traditional folk and cutting edge Pop is where Rosalía shines. It’s a sound not to be missed.
Long recognised as a prodigiously talented lyricist, Little Simz continues to push her songwriting to higher levels on her third album ‘GREY Area’. While British Hip Hop, and Grime in particular, have tended to have an either/or relationship with self confidence and self-reflection, Little Simz marries the two in her up-front, bold and personal delivery. The mix of Hip Hop styles here helps, as does a reliance on live instrumentation over samples. Overdriven bass and simple percussion push distorted, over-amped vocals on the incendiary ‘Boss’ which creates a wonderful contrast as Simz segues into the smooth vocals of ‘Selfish’ coupled with a slick walking bass line. The switch highlights how expertly composed an album ‘GREY Area is’. A future classic.
Having dropped two albums last year, SAULT returns with a prescient and important record that again straddles the boundaries of genre. Built around a skeleton of spoken word interludes, the album directly addresses the lived experience of Black people and Black culture. While track titles such as ‘Don’t Shoot Guns Down’ and ‘Sorry Ain’t Enough’ give some hint at the themes, the entire picture is more varied, nuanced, and emotionally arresting. ‘Bow’, featuring Michael Kiwanuka, draws out Afro Funk rhythms and Desert Blues guitar lines with the repeated refrain “we got rights”, before segueing into the poetic ‘This Generation’ that concludes “nobody listened, nobody cared. This generation cares”. These evolving, layered and often contrasting vocals and musical textures and influences are continually prying, questioning and asserting. While the two previous SAULT records were exceptional, it’s not fair to say this latest shows consistency, as it takes a significant leap to a whole new level of artistry. Do not skip it.
Composed and arranged by Sam Shepherd, better known to the electronic music world as Floating Points, ‘Promises’ begins with just seven notes which quickly establish themselves as a looping vamp for much of the album's nine movements and 46 minute run time. A dreamlike sense of the uncanny quickly develops before the legendary Pharoah Sanders enters on saxophone. ‘Promises’ was five years in the making and is a true mélange of Classical, Jazz and Electronica takes on ambience and, at times, minimalism. Each of the players here bring an important part to the table, as Sanders provides humanity and soul the LSO provides elegance and depth, while Shepherd provides the nuance and shuffles the horizons that contain the piece. As dynamic and captivating an album as you're likely to hear all year, this one may become a future classic. Few could anticipate an album sketched around a single refrain could be so fascinatingly good.
What will be our best of 2022? Stay tuned!