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Ugly Season — Perfume Genius

Given the trajectory of Mike Hadreas’ music over the years, it’s easy to feel taken aback by the sudden contrast that Ugly Season holds over the rest of his discography. However, the almost auteur role that Hadreas has managed to craft for himself as of late doesn’t seem unnatural for him, given the way his subversive pop sensibilities have evolved throughout his career. Perfume Genius’ first three albums set the stage for his big breakout No Shape, whose orchestral grandiosity became the impetus for even larger-scale production. If No Shape was the lighting of the fuse, then 2020’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately was the explosion itself, with incendiary lyrics about queer longing and dormant passion that made it one of the most celebrated pop albums of the year. In turn, Ugly Season is Hadreas’ way of sifting through the wreckage. This is the closest Hadreas has ever gotten to becoming a full-on composer, trading traditional hooks and melodies for music that resigns itself to shifting in the darkness. Equal parts shocking and seductive, Ugly Season might scare off fans of his earlier work, but make no mistake: this is easily Perfume Genius’s most forward-thinking and mesmerizing album to date.

Heart Under — Just Mustard

What is it about Ireland that produces some of the best shoegaze? The sophomore effort of the rock quintet hailing from the island perfectly toes the line between monstrous scale and brooding passivity. Waves of distorted guitar and industrial texture bloom into monolithic blocks of sound. Without necessarily targeting the listener, the music of Heart Under feels like a weapon. Its antagonism is only cut through by the glowing angelic quality of lead vocalist Katie Bell’s voice, the magnitude of whose effect on the music could be compared to the likes of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan. There is also a certain kind of confidence a band has to have in order to make a record that so willingly stays at one level, one pace, for its entire runtime. Moreover, it takes a certain amount of greatness to make the record thrive in that space. Taking influences from obvious choices like My Bloody Valentine all the way to post-rock chameleons Bowery Electric, Heart Under cannot exist without these predecessors and yet easily transforms itself into something greater than the sum of its parts. Needless to say, Just Mustard have carved themselves quite the space to explore in the future.

Niineta – Joe Rainey

Niineta is an album where someone’s enjoyment of it can be indicated by their reaction to the genre description. Joe Rainey’s expertise? Post-industrial electronic powwow music. If this intrigues you, let me assure you, it’s just as cinematic and enlightening as it sounds. By far one of the most inventive records to come out this year, Rainey tactfully captures the language and culture of Ojibwa all the while never retreating from the forefront of synthetic sound. To that effect, the album thoughtfully activates a convergence between history and the future, cultivating a grand stage for various recorded chants and orchestral blooms to roam. Niineta is a record that frequently packs in as many complicated textures as possible; however, this never overshadows the vocal elements of the album. More than anything, it is intensely reverent. Witnessing the pure imagination of Niineta feels like such a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. And when it’s over, the only emotion recognizable is that of gratitude.

Steve Reich: Reich/Richter — Ensemble Intercontemporain & George Jackson

Live versions of this Reich/Richter have been floating on and off of YouTube ever since it was commissioned in 2019, but it wasn’t until this year that it was finally released to the public on Nonesuch Records. Initially performed alongside an installation by Gerhard Richter, the duo focused their exhibition on structural patterns, both within visual art and music. The end product on the latter side of the collaboration is perhaps one of Reich’s most artistically potent works in decades. Despite how theoretically rigorous and dense the actual concept of the piece is, Reich/Richter rarely feels mechanical. On the contrary, it flows effortlessly from section to section, naturally progressing toward the end. That being said, the real beauty of Reich/Richter is its ability to conjure a whimsical yet dramatic narrative. There’s almost a childlike joy that rolls over you. The environment shrinks until you’re stuck with only the significance of yourself. It’s terrifying. It’s revelatory. It’s the manifestation of pure wonder.

Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at