Whenever I do a Google search for the best albums of the current year, I don’t recognize most of the results. So it becomes a game: how many of these best albums are made by artists I do recognize, and do I own any of them?
I have to confess a bit of disappointment when there’s an overlap between my tastes and that of the critical consensus.
These days, my favorite lists pretty much hew close to artists who’ve occupied the list before, so the lack of overlap is more an indication of my fossilizing tastes.
2022 is faring no different.
Utada Hikaru, Bad MODE: This album is definitely in the upper tier of favorite Hikki albums. Maybe right behind ULTRA BLUE, which says tons.
Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale and the Right Steppers: “We Cry Together” is compellingly uncomfortable and probably most of the reason this album is on this list. Also, I find this album far more engaging than DAMN.
The Linda Lindas, Growing Up: It sounds like there’s a bit of professional polish on this album, but it’s not enough to dull the band’s rough edges. I’ve rediscovered the Donnas recently, and part of me thinks I would have liked the Donnas more if they had been even remotely indignant as the Linda Lindas.
TwoSet Violin, Fantasia: Hey guys, some of us olds wouldn’t mind even a FLAC download somewhere.
Midnight Oil, RESIST: Billed as the final album, RESIST is every bit as urgent as a Midnight Oil album at the start of the band’s career. It’s just unfortunate that the world is not listening. Still.
Tears for Fears, The Tipping Point: Like Duran Duran’s FUTURE PAST, The Tipping Point finds Tears for Fears sound much like themselves without being too beholden to the past.
UA, Are U Romantic?: Imagine the Horizon EP with an updated sound. This EP is the most melodic we’ve heard from UA in a while.
Black, Wonderful Life: I wish this album was a bigger deal in the States. It’s too bad I had to discover it through a thrift shop purchase.
Cave-In, Antenna: I vaguely remember this album being somewhat controversial among my metalhead co-workers at Waterloo Records in the early 2000s.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Violin Concerto / Sonata for Two Violins (Gidon Kremer): Kremer performed the concerto with the Seattle Symphony, and I came away from that concert impressed. After hearing this recoding, I understand Kremer championing the work of Weinberg, a friend of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Paula Cole, This Fire: It’s too bad Paula Cole became the Sound of the WB Network. I didn’t take this album seriously at the time of its release, despite admiring Cole’s backing vocals on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Live. This Fire is a far stranger album than its big hits would indicate.
Viktor Vaughan, Vaudeville Villain: It’s fucking MF DOOM.
Kraftwerk, Techno Pop (a.k.a. Electric Café): Kraftwerk is the first band I’m discovering on vinyl instead of CD. Rather than wait for a CD to show up at the thrift store, I’ve been picking up the band’s albums as used records. I probably like this album the most because of the Sprockets skit on Saturday Night Live.
I can’t say I expected much from 2021 given how Generation X has turned out to be such dumb fucks, but I didn’t anticipate those expectations should have been lower. If the current trajectory holds, 2022 can already go fuck itself.
At least we got a new ABBA album out of the deal.
ABBA, Voyage: When Frida sang the opening notes of “I Still Have Faith in You,” I hadn’t realized how starved I was to hear that voice, those voices. Voyage also pulls off the remarkable feat of picking up exactly where the band left off in 1982, practically ignoring the musical developments that came in the wake of ABBA’s hiatus. It makes sense for the virtual live show. Why let 2022 intrude on 1982? It’s also remarkable how the band’s lyrics are darker than I remember. But I was 8 years old the first time I was an ABBA fan, so a lot of that subtext would have been lost on me.
Duran Duran, FUTURE PAST: ABBA shows how you can take the past into the present. Duran Duran takes the future into the past. Duran Duran has always tried to run parallel with the contemporary, but on some albums, they skew too heavy on relevancy. (I’m looking at you, Red Carpet Massacre.) With FUTURE PAST, Duran Duran embraces its past self, grounding all the experience of a 4-decade career into the fundamentals that make their signature sound.
Deafheaven, Infinite Granite: Yes, I’m far more into post-rock than heavy metal, so the fact this album embrace more of the former and less of the latter does not disappoint me in the least. Toward the end of the album, we do get treated to the scream vocals.
sungazer, Perihelion: Adam Neely is correct when he says recorded music has been too de-valued to be a reliable income source. As much as I love this sungazer album, I’m not going to complain if the next one takes years to arrive, if it ever does.
Utada Hikaru, One Last Kiss EP: I don’t think I’ve spun an Utada Hikaru song this much since “Be My Last”. I also love that all the remixes of “Beautiful World” are distinctive enough to withstand repeated listening.
Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers, Ramble in Music City: The Lost Concert: Glad to hear it’s lost no longer.
Jam and Lewis, Volume 1: There’s a melodic turn at the end of the chorus on “Happily Unhappy” that pretty much encapsulates the longevity of Jam and Lewis. Volume 2 reportedly includes the pair’s biggest collaborator, Janet.
MONO, Pilgrimage of the Soul: I seem to like every other MONO album since Hymn to the Immortal World. Couldn’t get into For My Parents …, The Last Dawn or Now Here Nowhere, but I’m all about Requiem for Hell, Rays of Darkness and this album.
Helmet, Live and Rare: I have only the first three Helmet albums in my collection, but this live album makes me wish I had seen them live.
FINNEAS, Optimist: Sorry, Billie.
Some other favorites from the past year:
Yo Majesty, Return of the Matriarch: Q: Will sex, God, and titties continue to be a part of the Yo! Majesty brand? A: Anything less is uncivilized. It’s time to be free.
Lil Nas X, MONTERO: Given the amount of time I spend in thrift shops, I have a bias against streaming-only releases. For the price Columbia is charging for downloads, I may as well wait for a physical release. I like this album, but downloading FLAC files from Bandcamp is the closest I’ll consider owning a digital release. I’m old that way.
Perfume, Polygon Wave: Yeah, this was really a maxi single. But I couldn’t stop playing this one either.
CZARFACE / MF DOOM, Super What?: To be honest, I don’t own very many MF DOOM albums, but man, that was a 2020 loss that affected me more than I expected.
Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, Thanks for Coming: This album is good, but I have a sense that it could have been phenomenal with a few more tweaks.
It’s been five years since I discovered the media section of Lifelong Thrift Shop, and I’m at a point where I’m making fewer discoveries. These days, I pick things up because they pique my curiosity, and I anticipate I’ll be re-donating a lot of the albums I bought in the past year.
Still, the vast majority of my listening these days is catalog, as the Favorite Edition Year Final will make clear. In the past, I might have scoffed at someone as new and popular as Olivia Rodrigo. Now? I shrug and follow the mantra, “Let people like things.”
There’s a lot of music out on which I missed when I sought the dopamine hit of finding a new favorite band.
Riz Ahmed, The Long Goodbye:Rogue One is probably my favorite movie in the Star Wars extended universe, and Riz Ahmed is big part of why. I’m usually skeptical of Hollywood actors making music, but The Long Goodbye is amazing. It’s a breakup record, but with an entire country. The interludes don’t even feel that arch.
Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love: “Hurt So Bad” drew my attention this album, which I then discovered had some solid post-punk credentials on it. I still don’t think calling it her “new wave” album is entirely accurate, though.
The Fixx, Reach the Beach: I bought this album on the strength of “One Thing Leads to Another” alone, but I was surprised to find “Save By Zero” on there.
Kelela, Take Me Apart: I love that today’s R&B artists draw on influence outside the genre. This album feels more like Utada Hikaru.
Laurie Anderson, Big Science: I have two other Laurie Anderson albums that did not answer the question why she’s so lauded. Then this album popped up at the thrift store, and it became clear.
Alexander O’Neal, Hearsay: This album did well at the time, and it’s definitely a fine production by Jam and Lewis.
Test Pattern, This Is My Street: Man, I want an entire physical release of this Documentary Now! parody of Stop Making Sense.
Brothers Johnson, Light Up the Night: Sure, this album was made in the last throes of disco, but there is some mighty fine playing here. And “Stomp!” is timeless.
Electric Light Orchestra, Time: I’m definitely not the target market for the orchestral classic rock of ELO, but this album was essentially the band’s detour into new wave. And I’m all for that.
A Taste of Honey, Twice as Sweet: Yes, this album concludes with “Sukiyaki”, but the 9 tracks preceding it are no slouch.
Big Pig, Bonk
Arditti Quartet, Arditti
Control Machete, Artillería Pesada, Presenta …
Prefab Sprout, Two Wheels Good (a.k.a Steve McQueen)
On May 10, 2021, I received the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. I had an appointment to get the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, but on the day I was to drive 20 miles to get it, distribution of the vaccine was paused.
After weeks of wondering when I’d be eligible to get a vaccine, followed by another few weeks of battling for an appointment, I had little mental energy left to do anything but work and practice for my music lessons.
Record Store Day Drops happened, and I was actually dreading it. A large music shop in my neighborhood closed permanently, and I haven’t eulogized it yet.
After a year and change of a pandemic that is nowhere near close to ending, I haven’t put much energy into listening to music of the current year. I visit the thrift shops every week to discover the past, but the present has no allure for me.
TL;DR: I don’t have much to offer for this half-year list.
The one release to which I’ve listened with any consistency contains remixes of a song released more than a decade ago. I’ve been distracting myself with so much YouTube and violin practice that I have a backlog of unopened vinyl, including titles I bought on Record Store Day.
I hope the second half of the year is kinder than the last year and a half.
Here are my favorites of 2021, what few I could find.
Utada Hikaru, One Last Kiss EP: I haven’t cottoned to an Utada song this hard since “Be My Last”, and all the incarnations of “Beautiful World” on this EP makes a strong argument that it too is one of her strongest songs.
Anton Reicha, Reicha Rediscovered (Ivan Ilić): Reicha is pretty obsessive about interrogating the theme of L’Art de varier (The Art of Variation) to the point it’s almost maddening. But maybe that’s the point.
Yo Majesty, Return of the Matriarch: Earlier this year, I had a hankering to hear “Club Action” by Yo Majesty, though I had sold my copy of Futuristically Speaking … Never Be Afraid when cash got tight. So it was a bit of serendipity to learn the duo reunited to release Return of the Matriarch.
Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, Thanks for Coming: I actually don’t think this album is as good as it could have been. The trio’s self-titled debut EP is actually stronger, but it has enough attitude that I can’t completely dismiss it.
The older I get, the more I find music from the past I hadn’t yet discovered more interesting than the new.
Riz Ahmed, The Long Goodbye: Wow, a breakup record with an entire country. Amazing.
Laurie Anderson, Big Science: Oh, so that’s why Laurie Anderson is a BFD.
Kelela, Take Me Apart: I find indie R&B way more interesting than indie rock these days.
The Fixx, Reach the Beach: File under: an album I would have owned a long time ago if only I learned who sang those songs at the time I first heard them.
Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love: I’ve read the success of Mad Love allowed Ronstadt to record more adventurous albums, which makes me wonder what would have happened if she had done another new wave album.
Last year, I may have complained about getting too many albums from Lifelong Thrift Shop, where I had started volunteering. SARS-CoV2 pretty much ended my volunteer work for this year, but I intend to resume once the pandemic subsides. I still make weekly visits, this time as a customer.
At least it’s afforded me to take a deeper dive into albums I do get.
Ned Doheny, Hard Candy: Does anyone else get a super homoerotic vibe from the cover?
Charlie Puth, Voicenotes: I just found him totally adorable in the Subway ads.
Robyn, Body Talk: I’m a latecomer to Robyn, but I see why she is popular with the gays.
Anton Reicha, Reicha Rediscovered, Vol. 1 (Ivan Ilić): Two volumes of an expected five have been released, so where are the other three?
Nakamori Akina, AKINA BOX, 1982-1989: This purchase pretty much seals my place in the Nakamori vs. Matsuda rivalry.
Various Artists, Studio One Rockers: Dawn Penn’s “No No No” is one of those tracks I loved but never knew who sang till recently.
The Damned, Machine Gun Etiquette: I love those thrift shop purchases that turn out to be keepers.
Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle: I have “Cars” on a 7-inch single, and it only took me another 40 years before listening to the entire album.
SUPERCAR, OOKeah!!: I thought I had caught up on owning SUPERCAR’s studio albums, but this album along with OOYeah!! slipped through the cracks. Of the simultaneously-released pair from 1999, OOKeah!! is noisier with stronger writing.
The Dismemberment Plan, Change: I’m waiting for Emergency & I to show up at the thrift shop.
I actually bought more vinyl reissues this year than remasters or deluxe editions.
Wire Train, In a Chamber / Between Two Words / Ten Women: This 2-CD reissue of Wire Train’s Columbia albums might mark the first time Ten Women has been released on CD.
Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love (Deluxe Edition): Wow, this album is longer than I remember.
U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Deluxe Edition): I didn’t spring for the multi-disc edition with B-sides, but the inclusion of a live show did remind me of the only time I saw the band live, which was during the Elevation Tour.
Roberta Flack, First Take (50th Anniversary Edition): The bonus material on this expanded edition is illuminating, but it’s clear why they weren’t pursued for the album.
Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi: This album so needed a remastering.
I started running out of things to say just as the SARS-CoV2 spread in the US, and when the lockdown happened, I threw myself into recording a pair of cover albums. I wasn’t buying much music, nor listening to anyone other than myself. By the time I finished making the albums, stores were opening up, and my music buying eventually resumed.
But I still don’t have much to say.
That doesn’t mean I’ve run out of opinions. So here are my favorites of the year so far.
Sam Sparro, Boombox Eternal
Timo Andres / Brad Mehldau / Jeremy Denk / Randy Newman, I Still Play
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, Reunions
The Streets, None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
The new decade doesn’t start till the end of of 2020, if you use the modified Julian calendar upon which scientists and the Naval Observatory rely. Pop culture writers are not scientists. Would you consider U2’s debut album a product of the ‘70s? Boy was released in 1980, and it would seem odd to lump it in the decade that gave us disco.
So even though science tells us the albums of 2020 should be counted in this review of the decade, we’ll save them for next decade. Besides, we didn’t give 2010 that accommodation last decade.
Tokyo Jihen, Sports: This album was a true band effort with songwriting duties spread among members rather than falling entirely on Shiina Ringo’s shoulders. But you couldn’t tell. Tokyo Jihen finally felt like an independent unit here and not just a backing band.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: The stark cover with Isbell gazing directly at the camera only hints at the vulnerability contained within the album’s 12 tracks.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things: I knew about neo-soul, but until I ran across Solange, Frank Ocean and Jarell Perry, I didn’t know the genre had formed its own underground. Sometimes, Perry is a beat or two away from falling into the orbit of Björk. Oddly enough, he reminds me a lot of Utada Hikaru.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound and Fury: Simpson owned this decade. He started out sounding like a traditionalist, but by decade’s end, he created a body of work incomparable even to itself. All of his albums should be on this list, but I’m choosing his most confounding.
Solange, A Seat at the Table: You may have Beyoncé.
Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!: I wish I could sing along with this album, but these lyrics … hot damn!
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot): When your award-winning commission inspires Taylor Swift to donate to your organization …
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: The Pulitzer Prize should have gone to this album.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton:The Phantom of the Opera was the last time I was riveted to a cast recording.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer: I’ve always felt Monáe had a Muzai Moratorium or Shouso Strip inside her. This album comes closest.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love: It’s like the decade preceding this album’s release had melted away.
Eponymous 4, Travis: Yeah, I’m putting my own damn album on this list. I can listen to it without cringing or second guessing it. It almost feels like someone better than myself had made it.
Sam Smith, The Thrill of It All: Similar to Monáe, I feel Sam Smith has an I Am a Bird Now or a Homogenic in them, waiting to bust out. This album is a step in that direction.
D’angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah: I got pregnant listening to this album, and I’m not even a woman.
I’m old enough now that I can no longer be mistaken for someone remotely connected to the zeitgeist. A phrase I would often employ was, “I know of them, but I’ve not heard from them.” These days, the first part of that phrase is a stretch.
That said, I’m surprised by the number of R&B titles that have crept into my playlist rotation. I’m still a rockist at heart, but rock is loosening its grip on my attention.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury: How was Sturgill Simpson ever going to top A Sailor’s Guide to Earth? He didn’t. He veered so drastically in a different direction that the albums can’t be compared. None of his albums can be compared to each other.
Torche, Admission: Torche can be found under the metal section of most music stores, but when I play their albums, I hear post-rock.
Weezer, Weezer (Teal Album): It’s a karaoke album, but a painstakingly created one.
Jeremy Denk, c.1300-c.2000: It’s a tall order to compile eight centuries of music into a single program.
John Luther Adams, Become Desert: It was also stirring to hear this piece live.
Cocco, Star Shank: We hear hints of clouds covering the sunniness of Cocco’s later work.
BBMAK, Powerstation: I will not lie — I’ve anticipating this album for most of the year, and I do not care who knows.
Shiina Ringo, Sandokushi: This album is a glorious mess.
Solange, When I Get Home: Similar to Sound and Fury, this album is confounding and fascinating at the same time. There’s nothing on here that matches the tunefulness of A Seat at the Table, and it would be too disruptive to the album’s flow if there were.
Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!: “Basquiat” was playing on the in-store system at Sonic Boom, and it pretty much clinched my decision to get this album.
In June 2019, I took the plunge back into music retail by volunteering at the Lifelong Thrift Store. This immediate access to the store’s CD stock has reshaped my listening habits. I bring back so many discs from my visits to the store, it’s rare that I’ll listen to something more than once. It makes finding new favorites a challenge.
Hans Abrahamsen, Schnee: Seattle Symphony performed this piece as part of its [untitled] series, and I was so fascinated by it, I had to own a recording.
Ali Wong, Baby Cobra: I heard Baby Cobra was a really good comedy special, but I didn’t realize Wong had filmed the special in Seattle. And I’ve known about Wong back when Chelsea Lately was on the air. I could have seen this show live, dammit.
Easterhouse, Waiting for the Redbird: The classic rock station in Honolulu back in the late ’80s would play an occasional “modern rock” track. I may have caught Easterhouse’s “Come Out Fighting” once on that station, but it was enough to make me curious about the band — a curiosity I would not explore till more than 30 years later.
Kalapana, Kalapana: I didn’t realize how pervasive this album was on Hawaii pop radio when I was growing up. I was 3 years old when this album was released, but it would continue to dominate the airwaves as I grew more aware of my surroundings.
Infomatik, Technologies: Sometimes, the Internet does forget.
My Bloody Valentine, Isn’t Anything: I missed out on the 2018 vinyl reissue of this album, so I settled for a bootleg pressing.
Robert Palmer, Secrets: This album was the pivot between the blue-eyed funk of Palmer’s early work and his embrace of a more new wave sound. It’s also one of his finest.
Rick Springfield, Tao: I’m a sucker for albums that forgo gaps and fades between tracks.
Boston, Boston: This album is against what punk music rebelled, but I like it anyway.
Roberta Flack, First Take: Stop underrating Roberta Flack!
This year was pretty slim on reissues. To be honest, I haven’t gotten through Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun.
Re-Flex, The Politics of Dancing: I can’t believe this album isn’t a towering classic of ’80s new wave. Cherry Pop thankfully gives it the deluxe treatment it deserves
The Replacements, Dead Man’s Pop: The Matt Wallace mix of Don’t Tell a Soul is ahead of its time. The drier sound would not become fashionable till after 1991, but heard today, Dead Man’s Pop feels contemporary.
Janet Jackson, Control: The Remixes: I didn’t realize how much I loved the mixes featured in Janet’s videos.