UPSAHL, ‘Monica Lewinsky’
Taylor Upsahl isn’t just a talented singer; she’s also got an endlessly sharp wit and an eye for artistic choices that push buttons without ever feeling forced. You can see it in album/EP titles like Young Life Crisis and Lady Jesus, or invoking Fight Club with the video for “MoneyOnMyMind.” But a true career highlight of this tendency is the single “Monica Lewinsky,” which debuted in late spring. It wouldn’t be enough to call this a gritty female empowerment anthem for our age. No, Upsahl confronts our societal biases and attitudes toward women with venom and passion that manages to both shame and entice any listener.
Dadadoh + The POC, ‘Pockets’
With their latest album, HOOLIGANS, Phoenix’s own Dadadoh + The POC tells the story of Phoenix. And just how do they perceive our little slice of the Copper State? Well, wrap your ears around that LP’s undisputed standout, “Pockets.” It’s practically the sonic version of the city itself, with weirdly layered beats of twisted surf rock and frenetic hip-hop that feel both profoundly celebratory and also somewhat markedly depressive. In a word, a picture-perfect glimpse into our bizarre and wonderful cityscape.
The Darts, ‘Shit Show’
And speaking of a bona fide “Shit Show,” The Darts’ standout single from April’s Love Tsunami EP feels like it could also be about the Valley. Or, maybe a terrible ex-boyfriend, or just a weird moment in one’s life. Either way, this desert-rock-with-a-side-of glam anthem is a powerful expression of disdain and the need to burn it all down. Maybe it lacks subtlety in lines like, “This is a shit show / A shitty shit show,” but The Darts have the prowess and charisma to make that into something resembling true rock ‘n’ roll poetry.
Joyce Manor, ‘Gotta Let It Go’
Joyce Manor mostly won the year when they called their new album 40 Oz. To Fresno. (How do you like that, Sublime fans?) But if that weren’t enough, the album itself, which landed in mid-June, feels like a beaming continuation of the manic punk that’s made the band a long-time favorite. That’s certainly clear with the nine-track record’s lead single, “Gotta Let It Go.” It’s everything you could want in a punk anthem: a sturdy two-minute run time; lots of big hooks and a huge chorus; and a simple message about moving on with your life. If you cut the fat of life and get to the point, something magical seems to happen.
The Black Moods, ‘Saturday Night’
Around these parts, The Black Moods have always been treated like royalty. And they’ve clearly recognized this abundance of love across the years, continually upping their game to become a bigger, more badass rock band. That growth continued with this year’s Into the Night, a collection of sweat-soaked odes to hedonism and life’s simple pleasures (read: friends, booze, and crazy parties). And “Saturday Night” is perhaps the best encapsulation of that, an homage to the best night of the week that also happens to be among the band’s most catchy and perfectly constructed tunes. Rock on!
Diva Bleach, ‘White Noise’
Technically speaking, Diva Beach released “White Noise” way back in summer 2021. However, it’s also the sturdiest track on this spring’s No Fun EP, and thus it totally deserves a prime spot on this list. Does the EP have other standouts? Sure, “Ashes” is a surprisingly uplifting ballad, and “Pillowcase” will likely stick you right in the old gut. But it’s “White Noise” that shimmers with the brightest of glitters, as the song marries the band’s core strengths of earnest songwriting, giant-sized hooks, and a syringe of pure fun. ‘Cause time means nothing with licks like these, folks.
Rex Orange County, ‘Keep It Up’
We’ve been hyped for the new Rex Orange County since the announcement of WHO CARES? earlier this year. But even before the album properly sank its teeth into hapless listeners, the single “Keep It Up” wormed its way into our hearts and minds. And how could it not, as Mr. O.C. continued to refine his ironic, pseudo-millennial Brian Wilson shtick with a romance ballad for a generation that’s both hugely cynical and voraciously seeking pop songs to soothe and sway. The album itself delivers on that same promise and then some, but it’s really “Keep It Up” that defined this exciting new era for the English crooner.
Hank Topless, ‘Cut My Head Off’
There are quite a few reasons to love Arizona’s own Hank Topless. The singer’s very name, for instance, is the best kind of satirical celebration of country and Americana music. Or, there’s some of his song titles, including “The Ghost of Bad Love” and “Country Western Crackhead Hippy,” from this year’s Thank Your Dirty Stars. But it’s the music, namely that album’s “Cut My Head Off,” that make this Tucson boy a genuine star. It’s a track that is both a poignant slice of country and something all together more bizarre — and in that tight space Mr. Topless shines like a postmodern Conway Twitty.
Weston Smith, ‘Dry Dry Desert’
Back in January, Weston Smith released the 10-track DUNGEON. With descriptions of Weston as a “wistful wizard,” one could easily chalk these up to a bunch of silly little gimmicks and needless world-building. Until you hear the album standout “Dry Dry Desert,” and all those kooky gimmicks and nerdy tendencies fall away pretty quickly. Because whether it’s his blown-out, slightly-detached vocals, the barrage of ’80s synth magic, or the pulsing rhythms, the song is an transcendent experience beyond all marketing ploys or other needless context. And that’s true even with a truly epic album cover.
Wet Leg, ‘Ur Mum’
In recent months, England’s own Wet Leg have made quite the waves. It helps that they’re one of those hugely online bands; their single “Chaise Longue” became a viral hit across TikTok. But they’re no one-hit wonder (if those still exist), nor are they just the happy byproduct of obsessive internet tweens. Case in point: the arguable true standout of their debut self-titled album, “Ur Mum.” Get past the LOL-worthy title as quick as you can, because what waits beyond is a delightfully bonkers pop-rock jam that’s either about the meaningless of commercial music, escaping one’s circumstances, or the power of mayonnaise.
Secret Attraction, ‘Trust/Forget’
Anyone who has read Phoenix New Times for the last few years will know about Secret Attraction. Derek Wise’s ’80s-inspired synth-pop project has spent this same time doling out a series of sexy, super nostalgic EPs and LPs, with the latest, Replica, debuting in late February. That album’s first single, “Trust/Forget,” is an interesting addition to the nine-track collection. Is it necessarily the best? No, and you could give those honors to the infectious “Fade” or the sensuous “Control.” It is, though, a powerful reminder of Wise’s skills and a great preview of how he both refines and expands his retro-leaning skillset.
Dunza, ‘Star Client’
Was Ist Das? describes itself as the “best record label from Yorkshire with a German name in all of Arizona.” None of that really matters beyond the fact that they’re right here in our fair city, curating some really interesting and off-kilter music. That includes the work of James Jackson Toth, who in addition to projects like One Eleven Heavy and Wooden Wand, releases music as Dunza. That project’s entire four-track Star Client EP is worthy of your time, but pay heed to “Disowned.” It’s eight minutes of sprawling ambient-meets-dub-meets-krautrock, and it’ll have you joyfully exclaiming, “What is this” indeed.
Tegan and Sara, ‘F*****g Up What Matters’
The new era for Tegan and Sara seems to be a simpler one. Earlier this year, the twins signed to indie label Mom + Pop, where they’ll release their as-yet-untitled 10th studio album. In the meantime, however, they debuted a brand-new single, the amazingly-titled “F*****g Up With Matters.” Here, the siblings Quin tackle life amid COVID, forging a power-pop banger with signature witticisms like, “I treat you like a cigarette, such a bad habit/Avoid you like alcohol, I can’t really stand it.” If we can expect more of this from the record proper, we may come out of the pandemic era with a tad more sanity than we’d ever expected.
Mississippi Nova, ‘No Time For Buffalo’
In January, Phoenix blues rockers Mississippi Nova released their latest album, The Desert in Winter. There were a few standouts on the 11-track album, including the nihilistic, Candlebox-esque jam “Sunrise Rider.” But in the months since, it’s been the album track “No Time For Buffalo” that’s helped encapsulate the group’s brand of “swampy space blues.” Maybe it’s the extra crunchy guitar; those big, brash drums; or a certain undeniable swagger — either way, it’s the perfect barn-burner anthem for our weird and wild times.
Katastro, ‘Give You My Love’
In May, Andy Chaves, frontman of Tempe-based reggae-rock band Katastro, died following a car accident. In the days after the incident, fans and friends alike released a series of touching tributes, celebrating the great music released over the band’s near-decade-long career. One of the last such contributions was “Give You My Love,” which was released back in February as part of a deluxe edition of Sucker. The track itself feels, at least in hindsight, like an extra powerful send-off, as Chaves and company have forged a truly poignant ballad that still permeates with their trademark intensity and charisma. It’s a song that proved Katastro had more than enough love to offer to anyone who dared to stop and listen.
Tears for Fears, ‘The Tipping Point’
Tears for Fears remains one of the most important and influential bands of the ’80s (and that’s, again, saying a lot). So it felt like something of a celebration when earlier this year they released The Tipping Point, their first new album in some 18 years. The record itself was another triumph for the band, filled with lost of earnest songwriting and genuine vulnerability. Case in point: the title track, a sweeping, wonderfully melodramatic synth-pop anthem that balanced the band’s core while breaking new grounds in terms of scale and structure. With any luck, maybe we won’t have to wait almost two decades for the follow-up.