Weapons-grade 808s, luscious horns and a megastar’s early steps: the best music our writers discovered this year | Music

Chief Keef – 4NEM (2021)

As someone generally averse to the fact that album releases never seem to slow down any more, even at the end of December, I managed to miss Chief Keef’s 4NEM when it dropped in late December last year. Known for pioneering drill before it splintered into a thousand different global subgenres, the Chicago rapper is beloved for the kind of abrasive, potty-mouthed raps that older listeners shake their fists at but which send younger listeners into a craze.

The cover art of 4NEM, depicting a gang of toy soldiers engaged mid-combat, is an apt taste of what the album contains. Keef’s hilarious one liners make intense violence sound comical. On Hadouken, he even references classic teen films: “You’s a fuckin’ cheerleader … bring it on.”

The production is equally zany, designed to match Keef’s frenetic energy. His army of producers mash together samples of guns being loaded, explosions, and synths that resemble operatic choirs. Most striking is 4NEM’s use of earth-shattering bass – I don’t think I’ve ever heard harder 808s. This is music that requires loud speakers; it splits eardrums as much as it does public opinion. CO

Half Man Half Biscuit – Bob Wilson, Anchorman (2016)

Because there are so many Half Man Half Biscuit songs out there – and because so many of them seem utterly impenetrable on first listen, either because the lyrical references are so obscure or because the music sounds like a total racket – I find that new instances of Nigel Blackwell’s genius slowly reveal themselves to me each year. This year’s pick: a song pondering how the late Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson became one of our most prominent sports broadcasters, featuring a completely tangential verse about being cold in the Irish town of Dundalk (“It’s raining soup and I’ve got a fork”). It’s hard to think of a record that could possibly be any less relevant in 2022, and thank God for that. TJ

Handsome Boy Modeling School and Cat Power – I’ve Been Thinking (2004)

I went down a deep Cat Power rabbit hole earlier this year, pushed over the edge by her fantastic (and underrated!) new covers collection. Reading every Pitchfork review of her catalogue, I was introduced to I’ve Been Thinking, a 2004 collaboration with Handsome Boy Modeling School – Dan the Automator and Prince Paul – that’s totally unlike anything else in her catalogue. It’s five minutes of honeyed, atmospheric soul music, anchored by Cat Power’s luxuriant and understated vocal, which drifts and meanders as if it has floated in from another song entirely. It’s perfect mood music, evoking the image of Cat Power as a lounge singer in some smoke-filled underground jazz club. SD

Kenny Wheeler – Music for Large and Small Ensembles (1990)

Jazz is a medium full of Kennys: there is the much-maligned smooth jazzer Kenny G, Miles Davis collaborator Kenny Garrett, bebop trumpeter Kenny Dorham, British bandleader Kenny Ball – the list goes on. Earlier this year, someone I interviewed referenced the Canadian composer Kenny Wheeler as an influence, so I stuck on his Music for Large and Small Ensembles as I wrote up my piece. It blew me away. As its title suggests, Wheeler composes 15 tracks for everything from orchestral big bands down to duo formations with John Taylor on piano and Peter Erskine on drums. His eight-part big band suite channels the luscious swing of Duke Ellington, opening on an affecting choral fanfare, while the small ensembles sink deep into delicate melodies as Wheeler slips and squeals on his trumpet. It embodies the wide spectrum of improvised music – making Wheeler possibly my favourite jazz Kenny to date. AK

Llwybr Llaethog – Mad! (1996)

Novelty throwback edits and big drops are the order of the day at clubs right now, so hearing Electro-Sian by Llwybr Llaethog emerge on a dancefloor this summer felt refreshing. It’s an explosive electro number with disorientating dub sensibilities and screeches of guitar flecked throughout, a far cry from the clean and catchy crowd pleasers doing the rounds.

Staying true to its title, the rest of the record is just as bonkers. Alongside the pacier cuts are downtempo steppers with wonky percussion, alien electronics and agitated Welsh language vocal samples flung in. Ambient noise interludes, heavier moments (Llandub) and a slice of moody cold wave (Ffanny) add a layer of eerie quiet to the chaos.

With its sleazy eccentricity and deep, rattling instrumentals, Mad! is a collection of sounds that could easily have its origins in 80s Germany, 90s New York or in London soundsystem culture. Its origin in a former mining town in Wales makes it even more exciting. SB

Oby Onyioha – Enjoy Your Life (1981)

Perhaps it was grimly predictable, but since turning 30 all the “best new music” I have discovered has been new to me, but decades old. My occasional forays into the pop charts and Spotify trending playlists have left me feeling like an anthropologist in a strange land, where what I understand as music is not necessarily worse, but certainly more precise, metallic-sounding, buffed and honed to a sharp point. Increasingly I’ve been craving the musical equivalent of satin or corduroy: languorous, even baggy; not a hook that grabs you by the jugular, but a vibe that you can sink into like a bean bag.

I’m not sure how I first heard Enjoy Your Life, by Nigerian singer Oby Onyioha – maybe in a 6 Music mix, true to my advancing age – but I experienced it as a bodily relief. That mid-tempo beat, the predictable strings and brass motifs, the minimal escalation in energy over six minutes: it has all of disco’s lust for life, but it still works if your only vices are two glasses of red and an early bedtime. And, better than anything else I’ve heard lately, it captures the necessity of pursuing pleasure, the importance of prioritising fun, even – or especially – when it seems elusive. It’s your right to enjoy your life – even in unprecedented times. EH

Roy Montgomery – Temple IV(1996)

This summer, when interviewing Dry Cleaning for Mojo magazine, I was tasked with asking each band member for one influence on their excellent new album, Stumpwork. Guitarist Tom Dowse cited the New Zealand guitarist Roy Montgomery and mentioned that he had once been in a band, Dadamah, that was signed to US indie label Kranky. Liking both Dowse’s playing on the new album and Kranky’s output very much indeed, I saved the album behind his most popular song on Spotify, then forgot about it for months.

I don’t really believe in cosmic forces but I do think music sometimes finds you when it’s meant to, and in a period of personal desolation – not to mention during a sub-zero week in Berlin – his 1996 album Temple IV hit me at the right time. It’s a thick, instrumental tundra of guitar playing, alternately sharp and white-knuckled, shearing flesh from bone, and loose, jangling and searching: music to lose yourself in, to override the static of your mind. It’s swiftly become an all-time favourite. Proof that you can’t beat the human algorithm – although Spotify took note of my obsessive listening and pointed me towards his new album, which I would otherwise have missed, so I indulged my editor’s privileges to commission an interview with him for our pages in the hope of minting some more new Montgomery fans. LS

Takeshi Terauchi – Nippon Guitars (Instrumental Surf, Eleki & Tsugaru Rock 1966-1974) (2011)

To discover Takeshi Terauchi’s work this year has been a blessing. Rightfully lauded as one of Japan’s guitar pioneers, Terauchi’s influence and work has been catalogued neatly by UK record label Ace Records. Charting Terachi’s career from the 1960s surf boom via groovy instrumentals through to 70s fuzz freak-outs and funk rock, his 2011 compilation Nippon Guitars charmed me from its first punchy guitar licks. Taking you through a decade of exuberance and fun, Terauchi’s instrumentation is always acerbic and sizzling. It’s a welcome path to wander down. DB

Tangerine Dream – Network 23 (1981)

Paul Hartnoll from Orbital pointed me towards this tune on Tangerine Dream’s 1981 album, Exit, after I suggested that the Berlin electronic giants’ best work was already behind them by the end of the 70s. Network 23 (which subsequently gave a name to Spiral Tribe’s record label) is fantastic, a gradually building, hypnotic trance track. The motorik rhythm is slightly reminiscent of German peers Neu! but it also clearly points the way to house and techno at a point when both were years away. The ethereal synth line that suddenly erupts at around three minutes and 20 seconds is just glorious. I consider myself told. DS

Taylor Swift – Today Was a Fairytale (2010)

When Taylor Swift released Red in 2012, she put me in a headlock which I am yet to escape from. Her earlier releases hadn’t captured me – I’d mistakenly judged them as too whimsical, too middle American, with a faint whiff of early-2000s Silver Ring Thing energy. Buried among those early records was a non-album single called Today Was a Fairytale that I’ve recently become obsessed with. It’s not Swift’s most sophisticated song, but its guilelessness is its charm. Something about its simplicity hotwires my nervous system, creating nostalgia for an innocent adolescence that, as a queer person, I never actually experienced. Three listens to its soaring chorus and I could walk through a brick wall. The campaign for Taylor to include it on her Eras tour setlist starts here. JS