From Rina Sawayama’s arena-pop therapy session to a sultry sophomore smash by Ari Lennox, these records will keep you engaged in the season of change.
An explosion of dance and house music soundtracked summer 2022, a stretch where people seemed hell bent on having the time of their lives (or at least looking like they were on Instagram) despite a bleak, anxiety-inducing cultural climate. As we move into fall and the colder months, we need music that can soundtrack a real cathartic night of crying-in-the-club as well as a crisp, solitary walk through the turning leaves. Taking us from the last gasps of summer to the front door of another tough winter, no season sets us up to feel a wider range of emotions than the fall, and we need music to match.
A more contemplative collection of albums is headlined by several long-awaited debuts (Shygirl, Girlpuppy, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff), and many instances of musicians redefining themselves in real time. Acclaimed artists like Rina Sawayama and Ari Lennox sidestepped the dreaded sophomore slump by making LPs that cemented their appeal as a capital-P popstar and soul supernova, respectively, while offering richer, more mature vocal performances.
While second albums are the ones that usually get the bad rap, making a third record is no easy feat, either. By then, the parameters an artist works within feel fully established and their creative ceiling seems lowered. Whitney kept things fresh by deepening its acclaimed indie rock sound with synths and tightly programmed drums. On their third LP, New Zealand band The Beths offered some of their best hooks and most incisive writing, spurred on by the clarity that comes from the end of a relationship.
There’s still a lot of 2022 left to stomach, but, finally, it’s more behind us than ahead, and we can start thinking about who we want to be going forward. These 12 albums are not only some of the best fall has to offer, but a showcase of how artists can reinvent themselves and inspire us to do the same — making singular experiences feel universal and common feelings deeply personal.
Ari Lennox, age/sex/location (September 9)
One of Ari Lennox’s best songs, “New Apartment,” is about the small pleasures that come with loving a space that’s all your own. The DC-born R&B artist’s songwriting can capture the grand significance of these intimate, little moments, and she applies that precise lens all over her sophomore studio album, age/sex/location.
On “Hoodie,” borrowing an article of clothing becomes shorthand for romance and affection, while hit single “Pressure” positions sex as an act of self-determination, filled with directions that are explicit in both senses of the word. “Stop By” captures the thrill of an impromptu late-night hookup, offering a fresh spin on Leon Haywood’s 70s bedroom classic “I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You” by slowing it to a crawl.
Sonically, age/sex/location places Ari’s voice atop sumptuous bass lines and flecks of woozy guitar, effectively evoking the pinks, purples and oranges seen on its cover. The musical palette is vast and timeless, but the scenes painted by Ari are personal, conveyed through vivid writing and her rich, emotive voice.
The Beths, Expert in a Dying Field (September 16)
The Beths third album was made at a stilted pace, first with sessions in their native New Zealand, then by exchanging files remotely during a nationwide lockdown, and finally during a frantic few days while on the road touring the United States. But you’d never sense that in listening to Expert in a Dying Field, one of the year’s most compelling indie rock records and a remarkably cohesive LP, with bittersweet lyrics enhanced by cascading guitars.
The album’s title track is perhaps the best song the band has ever written. The core metaphor has a gloom to it — the act of loving someone involves the accumulation of so much new information, and when it ends, there can feel like nowhere to channel it — but it isn’t presented forlornly. Elizabeth Stokes sings with sincerity, giving the listener license to really feel the album’s dynamic shifts in emotion.
With piercing snares and a wall of guitar fuzz, “Silence is Golden” is one of The Beths’ heaviest cuts, but its quiet-loud dichotomy serves Elizabeth’s lyrical quest for a break from the constant noise of daily life. Songs like “Head in the Clouds” and “Change in the Weather” are supremely hooky, but never veer into stomp-clap cliches. In many ways, Expert in a Dying Field is the optimal autumn album, catchy enough to remind you of a July beach day while giving you conceptual food for thought that’ll keep you nourished ‘til spring comes.
Rina Sawayama, Hold the Girl (September 16)
On a project dedicated to her inner child, critically acclaimed Japanese-British pop singer Rina Sawayama focused on the kinds of big questions that can seem simple when you’re young, but infinitely more complex as you age. “What makes you happy? What are your values? I think this record overall is about finding out what those boundaries are,” she told Them.
These are giant topics, and Rina matches their scale with an equally grand-sounding album. Hold the Girl features several booming, fist-in-the-air, emotional-climax-of-the-movie tracks, like the soaring “Catch Me in the Air” and “Holy (Til You Let Me Go),” which uses a pounding house beat for an exploration of her relationship with religion. “This Hell” walks a tricky tightrope of being affirming without sounding treacly, as Rina cleverly adopts a bit of an American Southern drawl to sing about queer people embracing their identities despite hate and bigotry.
In the moments where it doesn’t feel quite so seismic, Hold the Girl offers some hypnotic dance songs like the skittering, reverb-submerged “Imagining” and the triumphant, swelling title track. Hold the Girl is not a subtle album, its thematic statements are written in bold and italics, but that’s the way music trying to break through the hardened shell of adulthood should be.
Whitney, Spark (September 16)
Initially known for their warm, throwback FM stylings, Chicago band Whitney turned down the color saturation on their minor key sophomore album, Forever Turned Around. For their third LP of original work, Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek go electronic, bringing in hypnotic programmed drum loops and warbly synthesizers, all while retaining the honeyed harmonies that make their music so feel-good.
The lyrical content of Spark has drawn criticism, and it’s true that some of the phrasing on songs like “Back Then” and “Real Love” is trite. But there are multiple ways for music to convey emotion, and there’s a sincerity to Julien’s heady singing that can sell even an oft-used sentiment. Take “Heart Will Beat,” where he sings about mortality atop powerful piano chords and delicate guitar plucks. Max’s high fretwork on “Blue” paired with Julien’s crooning creates a sense of optimism, like the sun emerging after three days of unending rain.
Spark is an intriguing step forward for Whitney, one that zooms out to focus on cosmic themes of life, love and death. A little more specificity in the lyrics would’ve been nice, but the album sounds so good that you’re hooked anyway.
Lakeyah, No Pressure (Pt. 2) (September 23)
Though lacking Lil Baby’s melodic sense or the City Girls’ social media-ready bombasity, Lakeyah is a winning MC, delivering verses with such oomph that her average bars sound fresh, and her best feel like no rapper alive could say them better.
Shygirl, Nymph (September 30)
London’s Shygirl is a true multi-hyphenate, not just in the many hats she wears (rapper, DJ, label head), but in the music she makes, which combines all manner of U.K. hip-hop and electronica. Her debut album, Nymph, comes more than a half-decade after she burst onto the scene, and both deconstructs and deepens the image she’s crafted as a solo artist.
Shygirl has acknowledged that listeners sometimes reduce her to a single dimension, in large part because she raps confidently about her sex life. There are great tracks on Nymph that lean into that image – ”Coochie (a bedtime story),” most notably – while others like “Heaven” and “Firefly” showcase a yearning side of her.
In her Apple Music interview about the album, Shygirl evoked several eclectic reference points, from Madonna to Florence + the Machine to The Cardigans. That she’s able to conjure pop and rock music on an album that also offers minimalist bangers like “Nike” speaks quite well to Shygirl’s malleability, and her impressive self-possession in an industry that can seem dead set on stripping it away.
NNAMDÏ, Please Have a Seat (October 7)
Nowadays, everyone is genre-bending, to the point that the descriptor has effectively become its own genre unto itself. But artists like Chicago’s NNAMDÏ make you wish that the term wasn’t so diluted, because he’s truly chameleonic. Somewhat ironic given its title, nothing on Please Have a Seat stays in the same place for long, and it’s a thrill just to try and keep up.
Alongside Bartees Strange, he’s one of indie music’s most gifted rappers, unspooling impressive flows on the 808-heavy “Armoire” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Famous,” the latter a clever subversion of the starving artist trope, with NNAMDÏ declaring an interest in money over recognition, only to see the two become intertwined. On “Anti,” he sings like Lil Peep in Carhartts, with long, drawn-out syllables, only to effortlessly change pace and begin rapping in melodic triplets.
“ANXIOUS EATER” combines a guitar solo fit for a rock opera with a maniacal jazz breakdown that sounds like the mad noodling Thundercat would do after staying awake for 96 hours. “Dibs” has a Korn-esque metal bridge before morphing into something like shoegaze prog. Like an inventive chef, some of NNAMDÏ’s combinations are unintuitive, but they never disappoint.
“Dancing in the Shadows” recalls the dark emotionality of Burial, but with a more easily graspable groove and a star vocal turn from Clementine Douglas. But TSHA isn’t the kind of producer who needs a singer to convey emotion, as her lead synth melody on “Water” is reminiscent of the evocative soundtrack work of Oneohtrix Point Never, but placed within the context of a packed dancehall. “Power” is an intoxicating potpourri, with steel drums, chopped vocal snippets, and 808 bass existing harmoniously on the same record.
One of the reasons TSHA made Capricorn Sun was to open up the world of live shows, but the album feels like a great six-hour set condensed into a single, efficient, 50-minute record. At once nostalgic in its embrace of‘90s U.K. garage and house, and boldly progressive “Sister” still sounds like a vision from the future even two years after its release. TSHA’s first full-length project can be both a gateway drug for the curious and a bona fide mind-expander for seasoned electronic music heads.
Cakes Da Killa, SVENGALI (October 28)
SVENGALI is more subdued than 2016’s Hedonism, with a handful of moody, surrealist interludes and beats that burble instead of banging. But Cakes is still a ferocious MC, offering up confident quotables and fleet-footed flows (“Throwing shade is not my preference / But I still eclipse my foes with my presence,” he raps on “Drugs Du Jour”).
There’s also thrilling experimentation on SVENGALI, including “Sub Song,” which sounds like Cakes rapping atop a J Dilla B-side. He sings like a house diva on “Think Harder” and strategically places a few largely instrumental tracks throughout the album to create a sense of space.
Girlpuppy, When I’m Alone (October 28)
Spurred on by the pandemic, Atlanta’s Girlpuppy first turned heads with the dusky “Cheerleaders,” a song so firmly in the Phoebe Bridgers wheelhouse people assumed she was from Los Angeles. She deserves significant credit for doing a lot more than relying on the sad girl indie folk cliche for her debut album When I’m Alone: a collection of gossamer, dreamy tunes that make you want to move your body.
The album peaks with the tender “Denver,” an ode to the love between siblings delivered with endearing earnesty. “You’ll never lose me even if you wanted to,” she sings. The track could have easily been a slight, acoustic ballad, but instead it’s rollicking, with driving drums and a buzzy synth refrain. Instead of being solemn, it’s cheery, sounding like a sister wishing her brother the best on his big move.
Smart production choices create pleasing contracts between Girlpuppy’s measured, elongated syllables and the instrumentation below. “Swallow” features a nimble bass line and twitchy hi-hats, while “I Want To Be There” has a country western gallop and these blink-and-you’ll-miss-them electric guitar licks that give the track a sense of downhill propulsion.
In an era where artists are encouraged to drill down on one hyper-specific sound, Girlpuppy (and producers Henry Stoehr and Sam Acchione) deserves praise for diving headfirst into something new.
YTK, As Polite as Possible (November 11)
As Polite as Possible is his second EP of 2022, and it’s the most promising body of work in his young career. Beginning with the triumphant “Thank You YTK,” with double-time flows that quickly establish why he’s the rare bubbling rapper with the chops for mainstream success. Saying an artist can be all things to all people often feels like a backhanded compliment implying that someone can’t hone in on a singular sound. But in the case of YTK, it’s because he throws heady harmonies over booming trap drums (“Don’t Be Dumb”), steers the car smoothly with two fingers (“Light Touch”) and offers something akin to the Playboi Carti baby voice (“Goals”).
YTK’s sonic adventurousness is anchored in lyrics that feel immediate, never pretentious or deliberately out of reach. “I ain’t saying shit to ‘em, I ain’t saying shit cool, I ain’t saying shit nice / Cause I’m running outta patience and I’m running outta ice,” he raps on “Don’t Be Dumb,” later adding the joyful one-liner, “Got the top off that bitch like a bus tour.”