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.
Back at the dawn of the recorded music industry, albums did little more than collect an artist’s last few singles onto a compilation, a model Japan still follows to some extent. Most of the tracks on BAD Mode was released as singles, and I have to admit, I couldn’t see how they all worked as an album. Then Utada provided the last few tracks, and it became apparent BAD Mode just might be their best album. I’m still very much attached to Ultra Blue, DISTANCE and First Love, but BAD Mode is quickly rising up the ranks.
Black, Wonderful Life
How is this album not more popular than it is? Hatakeyama Miyuki even covered the title track. It’s actually quite popular in the UK, but the US needs to catch up.
Tears for Fears, The Tipping Point
Similar to Duran Duran, Tears for Fears has never really recorded the same album twice, and The Tipping Point follows that tradition. This album resembles Duran Duran’s FUTURE PAST in the way it tips a hat to earlier work while still sounding modern. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith know what works for each other, and The Tipping Point reflects that ease, despite the difficulty in getting the album made.
Midnight Oil, RESIST
The modus operandi of a Midnight Oil album hasn’t changed in 40 years, but what’s unfortunate is how much dire the world has become for not heeding the band’s warnings in all that time.
My mom bought the single “Whatcha Doin’?” for me when I was 8 years old, so I didn’t exactly have quite the appreciation for the song that I do now. Decades later, I picked up the self-titled album from whence the single came at the Austin Record Convention, and not being an expert on late 70s funk, I really dug it. The band is tight. Pauline Wilson sounds incredible. And the songwriting? Top notch. Seawind has been reissued a number of times in Japan, which indicates this album is vastly underrated here in the States.
Various Artists, Living in Oblivion, Vol. 4
Just look at this track list and tell me this compilation isn’t crack for 80s music fans.
MF DOOM, MM FOOD?
Kate Bush sang the digits of pi and wrote a song about doing laundry. So a hip-hop album about food should not be outside the realm of plausibility.
Cocco released her debut album Bougainvillea in March 1997, and 2022 marks her 25th anniversary. So she’s commemorating that achievement with a new album.
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Planet Folks, March 30
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENRATION return with their first new album in 4 years, one year longer than their usual gap. At this point, I’ll just blame SARS-CoV2 for the delay, even if it’s not the reason.
Utada Hikaru, First Love, March 23 Utada Hikaru, Distance, March 23 Utada Hikaru, DEEP RIVER, March 23 Utada Hikaru, Ultra Blue, April 27 Utada Hikaru, HEART STATION, April 27 Utada Hikaru, Fantôme, April 27 Utada Hikaru, Hatsukoi, April 27 Utada Hikaru, BAD Mode, April 27
OMG Ultra Blue on vinyl! But yeah, I’m getting them all, except Hatsukoi, which I already have. By the way, I’m really liking BAD Mode.
Billed as the final Midnight Oil, Resist finds the environmentally-conscious Australian band topical as ever. And it’s been four decades since they drew attention to these issues. How much progress have we made since?
Tears for Fears, The Tipping Point, Feb. 22
I saw a lot of people online express excitement over the return of Tears for Fears, and yet, I don’t remember that much attention being drawn to their last album, 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. I have to admit, that album is my least played of theirs.
Utada Hikaru, BAD Mode, Feb. 23
I can’t think of a more appropriate title to describe the zeitgeist of the early 2020s. A digital release on Jan. 19 precedes the physical release in February.
Enya, “May It Be”, Jan. 7
Enya has been around long enough for her albums to receive the deluxe reissue treatment, but I also get the sense she’s pretty ambivalent of such reissues. So this vinyl reissue seems more like the label trying to make sure people know Enya is still around. Jan. 7 is a US import release date. The single is already available in the UK.
Soundtrack, Lost in Translation, Jan. 7
This soundtrack gets occasional vinyl reissues that sell out quick and fetch exorbitant prices on Discogs. So yeah, I’m going to try to snag a copy.
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake, Jan. 28
I picked up this album and Rid of Me from the thrift store at the same time, and I like both albums. But Rid of Me monopolized more of my player time. I’ve still eagerly awaited this vinyl reissue, nonetheless.
The White Stripes, Elephant, March 25 The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan, March 25 The White Stripes, Icky Thump, March 25
I’d say I’m more interested in the Elephant reissue over Get Behind Me Satan. I haven’t listened to Icky Thump.
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.