I’ve sometimes struggled to find 10 albums to put on my year-end favorite list. This year, I’ve had to expand the list. The last time I encountered a release year this packed with contenders was 2002.
Utada Hikaru, Bad MODE
Most of this album was released as singles, and to be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced they would coalesce into a whole. Then Utada brought in the remaining pieces, and it all made sense. My attention span has gotten a lot shorter since thrift shops became my main source of music discovery, and I don’t listen to albums as deeply as I did. But I paid Bad MODE a lot of attention.
Solange is still my favorite Knowles sister, but with RENAISSANCE, I’ve finally come around to Bey herself. This album is queer af, and I’m all for that.
The Linda Lindas, Growing Up
The Linda Lindas are the band I wish the Donnas could have been.
Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale and the Right Steppers
I hate to reduce the worth of an album down to a few tracks, but it’s tough to ignore the weight of “We Cry Together” and “Auntie Diaries”. The former is uncomfortably raw, while the latter is refreshingly empathetic, given hip-hop’s historic casualness with homophobia and transphobia. The rest of the album is great, but those two moments actually make it difficult to recognize there is a rest of the album.
PLASMA is something of a reset. 2018’s Future Pop was OK, but the singles preceding that album’s release fell flat. Not so with the singles on PLASMA. While I had trouble picturing Bad MODE as a complete album, I could sense immediately that PLASMA would be a keeper.
Ty Herndon, Jacob
Ty Herndon had a relapse that nearly cost him his life, but his recovery resulted in an album compelling for its honesty and vulnerability. He suffered to create great art, and let’s hope he never has to go through that again.
TwoSet Violin, Fantasia
I don’t look to TwoSet Violin to champion modern composition, but Jordan He’s score to the duo’s ambitious short film suits their common era sensibilities.
Omar Apollo, Ivory
(Don’t compare him to Frank Ocean. Don’t compare him to Frank Ocean. Don’t … aw, screw it.) Omar Apollo is what would have happened if Frank Ocean spent his formative years being a Death Cab for Cutie stan. That sounds like a dig, but I happen to like both Frank Ocean and Death Cab for Cutie.
Charlie Puth, CHARLIE
I haven’t run into a better modern day word painter than Charlie Puth. “Charlie Be Quiet!” is a master class on using pop production to reinforce lyrics.
Robin Holcomb, One Way or Another, Vol. 1
This album brings together songs from Holcomb’s catalog along side a smattering of new material and covers, all sparsely captured. Emmylou Harris sang some tight harmonies with the Nash Ramblers on “Hard Times Come Again No More”. Holcomb’s version speaks an entirely different harmonic language.
Midnight Oil, RESIST: The message on the band’s final album hasn’t changed since their start and somehow feels more urgent than ever.
Tears for Fears, The Tipping Point: Everything you like about classic Tears for Fears, updated to sound very much 2022.
Björk, Fossora: My favorite Björk albums reign in her avant-garde tendencies just enough to let the pop hooks shine through. Fossora is not easy listening, but it’s engaging.
Freedy Johnston, Back on the Road to You: During his Elektra years, I preferred Johnston’s quieter albums over his louder ones, and on this new outing, he’s got the right balance between the two.
For the first time in a number of years, I’ve had an easier time compiling my favorite new albums than catalog discoveries. Last year, I noted that I’m not finding as many eye-openers at the thrift shops. This year seems to follow that trend. The first half of this list is solid, but the second half of the list could probably be negotiated.
easy life, Life’s a Beach
Kia car commercials seem to be a new avenue of music discovery for me. First, it was the hamsters and Black Sheep. Now it’s skeletons, and uh, “Skeletons”. I’m still on the fence about the band’s new album, but this debut is a keeper.
Black, Wonderful Life
Black has always existed on the periphery of my awareness, and I even felt a bit of sadness to hear of his passing back in 2016. But I wouldn’t fully understand just how good he was till I picked up Wonderful Life from the thrift shop. He didn’t have much of a profile in the States as in the UK, which is a pity.
Cave In, Antenna
This album got quite a bit of in-store play when I worked at Waterloo Records at the time of its release. I would eventually understand this album is quite the departure from the band’s usual metal outings.
Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!
I knew Devo mostly from “Whip It” and “Working in the Coal Mine”. Then I picked up Freedom of Choice and this album from the thrift shop and discovered they were far more angular than those hits hinted at.
Mieczslaw Weinberg, Violin Concerto / Sonata for Two Violins (Gidon Kremer, Danielle Gatti, Gewandhausorchester Liepzig)
Weinberg was a friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, and it’s easy to hear the shared musical dialect between the two composers. But Weinberg isn’t Shostakovich Light. He has his own sense of lyricism and bite, which Gidon Kremer has done well to champion.
Paula Cole, This Fire
“I Don’t Wanna Wait” was so tied to the branding of the nascent WB Network that I didn’t really take Paula Cole seriously, despite loving her backing vocals on Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live. It turns out This Fire is a far more adventurous album than the hit single let on.
Radio stations in Honolulu only ever paid attention to “Toy Soldiers”, playing it to death. But the album got renewed attention when Eminem sampled it at the start of his career. It’s really a solid album that transcends its hit single.
Recommended if you like Kelela, Sampha, Solange and other such artists expanding the boundaries of R&B.
Kraftwerk, Techno Pop (a.k.a. Electric Cafe)
I mostly like this album because of Mike Myers’ iconic Sprockets skit on Saturday Night Live. But also, this Kraftwerk album seems the most tuneful.
Club Nisei, Japanese Music of Hawaii
This compilation of traditional Japanese music performed by the Club Nisei Orchestra got quite a bit of play on the in-store system at Waterloo Records. I wasn’t much into older Japanese music at the time, but I picked it up at a record show in Seattle mostly out of nostalgia. I understand now why it was so popular among my coworkers.
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.