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.
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 remember this album causing a bit of controversy among my record store co-workers at the time of its release. Cave In had recorded a number of metal albums till Antenna, which was the band’s major label debut. Antenna does not hide its commercial ambitions, and some of those said co-workers did not like this change in creative direction. Listening back to it, I have to say I really like it, which probably means I would not be the target market for their more metallic work.
Kraftwerk, Techno Pop (a.k.a. Electric Café)
You would think I would already have owned the entire Kraftwerk discography by now, and yet, they are the first band in decades that I’ve discovered through used vinyl instead of used CD. Yeah, I’ve dabbled with downloads of their albums in the past, but I’ve taken an earnest interest in them now. Techno Pop, a.k.a. Electric Café, is one of my favorites, mostly because of the Saturday Night Live skit Sprockets.
Bell Biv Devoe, Poison
When Poison showed up on the Record Store Day 2022 List, I immediately launched Spotify to determine if it were something for which I would want to budget. I was a teen-ager at the time of the album’s release, and I distinctly remember dismissing it as something cooler kids would like. I have since grown to appreciate new jack swing, and yes, I bought this album when RSD rolled around.
Manu Chao, Clandestino
I sold a lot of copies of this album when I worked at Waterloo Records, but I had no curiosity to find out why it was so popular. A few months into the job, I quickly sensed that Austinites on the whole did not like the same things that I liked. But I picked it up for $0.10 at Lifelong Thrift Shop, and I understand now why it’s still a popular album. Chao threads a lot of genres into his music, but he doesn’t get too clever, lest he falls into the Sting trap.
Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale and the Right Steppers
The entire album is great, but “We Cry Together” is fucking devastating.
The Linda Lindas, Growing Up
“Racist Sexist Boy” could have just been a flash in the pan, but oh damn, the Linda Lindas got that righteous indignation down pat.
TwoSet Violin, Fantasia
Eddy Chen and Brett Yang are common period guys through and through. I don’t look to them to advocate for Brian Ferneyhough or Peter Sculthorpe. So this EP of original music composed by Jordan He is absolutely on-brand for the duo — contemporary but rooted very much in the 18th and 19th centuries.
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.
A decade ago, I wrote a series of entries ranking my favorite albums from 1985 to 2004. My collection has expanded greatly since then, particularly in the last five years. So I wanted to see what has changed in 10 years.
2015 started strong with the return of Sleater-Kinney, and it stayed strong all the way through the release of the Hamilton cast recording. That said, the list goes through quite a number of changes, consolidating some stragglers and bouncing a few titles off.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Deebs and Jarell Perry, Shift
Steve Grand, All-American Boy
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
Other favorites from the year:
Software Giant, We Are Overcome
Madonna, Rebel Heart
Duran Duran, Paper Gods
Enya, Dark Sky Island
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Wonder Future
Andrew Norman, Play
Troye Sivan, Blue Neighborhood
The Favorite 10 sees one title switched out — Gaytheist and Rabbit’s split EP for Miguel’s Wildheart. Father John Misty, Takaakira Goto, Seattle Symphony and Kronos Quartet make way for Andrew Norman, Troye Sivan and Software Giant.
Eight years into 2010s, 2015 is so far turning out to be my favorite year for the decade. The hierarchy of the list gives a false sense of preference — some of the albums outside of the Favorite 10 got as much play time as those at the top of the list.
Duran Duran and Enya could have occupied spots in the Favorite 10 if the field weren’t so crowded.
I didn’t think a comeback this year could top the return of Sleater-Kinney, but I was mistaken. I didn’t realize how much I had missed Janet Jackson till she returned, and Enya quenched a drought of a similar length (7 years.) Even Madonna turned in work that’s some of her best in a while. I also learned the awful term “PBR&B”, which describes the kind of R&B music to which I seem to be drawn.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical: The last time the score of a musical had me riveted to my stereo was The Phantom of the Opera. Not only is the story of Hamilton thrilling to follow, but the hip-hop score is jaw-dropping. Policy debates as rap battles? Maybe that should happen in real life.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Just about every year-end list will include this album near the top. And I don’t even listen that much hip-hop.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free: It’s always great to see an artist with a breakthrough album follow up with something just as strong.
Björk, Vulnicura: So now the question is which do you prefer: Vulnicura or Vulnicura Strings?
Deebs and Jarell Perry, Shift: I like how Jarell Perry keeps pushes the borders of what R&B can do. He’s got great company with Shaprece, Santigold, Miguel and Frank Ocean, WHEREVER THE HELL HE IS.
Steve Grand, All-American Boy: I still don’t understand why people call him a country artist. He sounds nothing like Sturgill Simpson.
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable: Janet returns with her most sonically diverse album since The Velvet Rope.
Miguel, Wildheart: He bragged about being better than Frank Ocean, and I hate to say it, but I think there’s something behind that bravado.
Honorable mention goes to …
Madonna, Rebel Heart
Duran Duran, Paper Gods: Duran Duran tends to misstep after hitting a home run, but that’s not the case here.
Enya, Dark Sky Island: You know what you’re getting with Enya. On a few tracks, she does seem to be dipping a tentative toe into more pop styles, by which I mean less Bach.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Barnett crams a lot of imagery in her songs, but they make for great stories.
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Wonder Future: When ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION take time with their albums, it really pays off.
Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: No, this isn’t an international crossover album. If anything, it’s some of the most challenging music the quartet has recorded in a while.
Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot, Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 / Varese: Ameriques: This album is something of a souvenir for me because I attended this concert, but the live recording of Ameriques would be reason enough to pick it up.
Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty: I didn’t think this album would be very distinct from MONO, but it’s quite a change for Taka and still recognizably him.
Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear: This album will also appear on a lot of year-end lists, but it didn’t grab me as much as everything else on the list.