Looking back on each year in music is always a unique experience. There is no formula for determining the best albums of each year. Determining “greatness” in an album is kind of like an exercise in spinning plates. Some albums primarily gain momentum on the merit of being important and thought-provoking while others are just well-written pop songs. Some albums bring you to tears while others make you want to boogie. At the end of the year, at least for this blogger, it’s just a gut feeling. For me, a great album spins the most plates or perhaps the biggest plates. Yes, this is a flawed metaphor. Just like my list. So here are my top 14 plates spinning albums of the year!
14) Beach House – Once Twice Melody
Ah, Beach House. Always the bride’s maid, never the bride. But this year, I’m inviting the band to walk down the aisle. I really believe that within this almost 90-minute Beach House album are enough really great racks to comprise an album worthy of Album of the Year recognition. The flaw of Once Twice Melody is that a handful of tracks don’t hit as hard as some of the others. I think if we whittled this thing down to 55 minutes, we would be talking about this one in the top 3.
How to Listen to Once Twice Melody: listen to this album with your head in the clouds and curled up with your favorite blanket.
13) Nas – King’s Disease III
KDIII is proof that Nas has outlasted most his peers and cemented himself among the few rap elders that can still create inspired music. Rap, after all, is a young man’s game. This album sounds nostalgic, but never gets lost in the past. Nas sounds as relevant as ever.
How to Listen to King’s Disease III: Break out this album when you’re feeling you need some ‘new’ old-school hip hop.
12) Bonny Light Horseman – Rolling Golden Holly
Like the band’s previous album, Rolling Golden Holly is also a blend of traditional music from two different ears. The folk supergroup combines traditional folk music with today’s Americana. Bonny Light Horseman has only made two albums but they seem to have found their sound with relative ease. Given the caliber of songwriters in the group, I won’t be surprised to see them appear on this list in the future.
How to Listen to Rolling Golden Holly: After you’ve put the horses in the stable and gathered around a nice fire for the evening.
11) JODA – JODA
Super-group JODA has created the vintage dance album of the year! Jono Grant (Above and Beyond) and Darren Tate (DT8, CMC< & Citizen Caned) came together in 2020 to produce their full-length project together. Their self-titled album is full of mesmerizing trance and deep house beats. It’s amazing that musicians can come together and develop such great music on their first project.
How to Listen to JODA: Pregame the music before watching the movie Drive.
10) Alvvays – Blue Rev
Mix in two parts pop, one part shoegaze, and a dash of post-punk and you get Blue Rev by Alvvays. I’m not sure that any album will be as adored as their eponymous 2014 release that featured the now classic “Archie, Marry Me”, but track for track Blue Rev seems to be their most consistent effort. Each song is a sonic masterpiece of noise, lush vocals, and dreamy vibes. This album is darn near perfect through track 8, but dips off, if only slightly after that.
How to Listen to Blue Rev: When in that dreamy mood, but still ready to rock.
9) Lucius – Second Nature
Living in a multi-verse where Lucius hasn’t had a breakout hit is a cruel reality. The duo has spent the last few years collaborating, most notably with The War on Drugs, Black Pumas, and Harry Styles (though they didn’t receive a feature credit). This, you would think, should have introduced the band to a myriad of new listeners just in time to deliver a saccharine sweet album of retro pop hits and power ballads. This is such a fun album, though the band’s versatility sometimes gets the best of them as the album suddenly shifts from dance pop to ballad perhaps a little too frequently. “Next to Normal” is my pump-up song of the year, while “the Man I’ll Never Find” is one of my favorite heartbreaking ballads of the year.
How to Listen to Second Nature: Save this one for when you’re ready to dance through your tears.
8) Gang of Youths – angel in realtime.
As I mentioned, albums end up on this list for all sorts of different reasons. This is the sappy album. These songs grab a hold of your heart and don’t let you go. angel in realtime has its origins in Gang of Youths’ front-man David Le’aupepe’s father passing away. The lyrics are replete with personal revelations, angst about missing family members, and enduring grief. The album sounds intimate and sparse sometimes, while other songs present soaring melodies and walls of sound that could fill arenas. There are some inconsistencies in the writing and the length of some of the songs and the album itself can be challenging. But this is a beautiful album and the influences of bands like U2 to The National echo in the rich texture of the production.
How to NOT to Listen to angel in realtime: Don’t listen to this album while lifting weights at the gym.
7) Black Country, New Road – Ants From Up There
It seems like BCNR zigs, just as the rest of the musical landscape zags, again. I’m not sure if Ants From Up There will be viewed as an album that was ahead of its time, a cacophonous throw-back to early 2000’s chamber indie-rock bands, or just a beautiful standalone piece of art rock. For those less familiar, BCNR was a 7-piece (now a 6-piece) art-rock/post-punk group that cobbles together music school virtuosity with a self-taught rock sensibility. The album’s pace is something of a marvel, with well-placed instrumentals and slow jams to help you catch your breath in between frenetic gut-wrenching songs like “Chaos Space Marine”, “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade”, and ‘Basketball Shoes’. This album is exhausting (in a good way), and never bogs down.
How to Listen to Ants From Up There – With headphones on while you’re having that mental breakdown in the park.
6) Willi Carlisle – Peculiar, Missouri
Willi Carlisle will never threaten mainstream country music. Instead, he will exist on the fringes of folk and Americana as a character that makes the genre one of the most compelling in modern music. In a sea of country artists that sound and look the same, Carlisle stands out (literally, he’s a giant person) as a witty, poignant storyteller with an encyclopedic brain tamed by blue-collar sensibilities. The themes of Peculiar, Missouri range from millennial semi-homelessness, queerness, and love conquering all. The album’s centerpiece and title track is a 7-minute stream-of-consciousness folk tune that starts at the local Walmart and ends with the apocalypse. I’ll offer a brief aside and say that he’s one of the most electrifying live acts that I saw this year. He’ll tell stories that’ll make you laugh, sing songs that will bring him to tears, and plays at least a half dozen instruments throughout the set.
How to Listen to Peculiar, Missouri - Listen to this one when you really want to experience something original.
5) Weyes Blood – And in The Darkness, Hearts Aglow
I don’t think that soft rock is going to be the next big thing in music. But it’s been fun to collect artists like Drugdealer, Destroyer, and Weyes Blood. These acts have carved out a small niche in the current landscape. Weyes Blood record, “I’ll call ‘Hearts Aglow” for brevity’s sake, is a masterful throwback to acts like The Carpenters and Carole King. Every time I put this album on, I listen all the way through. The album has incredible production, unique instrumentation, and a steady pace that allows for an immersive listening experience. Earbuds won’t do for this record. You’ll need to get the noise-canceling hi-fi earphones out before you press play and so you can be transported into a world of warm harmonies and lush orchestral instrumentation.
How to Listen to And in The Darkness, Hearts Aglow: Like I said with noise-canceling hi-fi earphones. If you’re the person that always talks about the incredible production every time someone brings up Tame Impala’s album Currents, this album is for you.
4) Father John Misty – Chloe and the Next 20th Century
This is my favorite Father John Misty album since Honeybear. I get a little lost in the enigma of FJM. I’ve been waiting for Josh Tillman to reveal that it’s all just a “bit.” I keep waiting for the reveal in his lyrics, waiting for him to pull the carpet out from under me, but it appears that in Chloe and the Next 20th Century he wrote a sincere love album.
Tillman was able to transfer his style and sound over to the bandstand without losing his signature wit (he’s as clever as ever) but seems to shed the contempt present in so many of his previous recordings. The instrumentation in this album pays homage to the big band orchestras of the thirties and forties. Some tracks feature light accompanying strings, while others feature band stands horn sections, timpani, and vibraphones. The one departure, sonically, is in the album’s closer, “The Next 20th Century”, which prominently features an electric guitar destroying the soundscape that was set up by the previous 10 songs, effectively ending the nostalgia-induced coma provided by these songs.
How to Listen to Chloe and the Next 20th Century: You know before I write it. This album needs to be listened to while crying in a tuxedo and top hat.
3) Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture
It’s hard to know where to start with Hostile Architecture. I live in a downtown metropolitan area in a city where seeing homeless camps is not only a surprise but rather expected. When I heard Ashenspire combined their suffocating black metal with the themes of urban decay, anti-imperialism, and class warfare it reminded me of what I see day in and day out living in downtown. Hostile Architecture is an avant-garde progressive black metal album that chugs along and blasts as well as any black metal album. The choice to add a violin and saxophone makes the record feel like a baked-out jazz metal experiment (especially on the song “Pamplisest”). Ashenspire does their best work building songs into a dizzying cacophony with a face-melting climax saxophone line or with a gut punch lyric like Beton Brut’s “I had learned the steps before I could walk, I learned silence before I could talk” and “When you can’t see the stars, You stop dreaming of space.” Grim stuff. Hostile Architecture is worthy of being one of the best albums of 2022 (if you can stomach it).
WHEN to Listen to Hostile Architecture: While burning the whole thing down (please do not burn the whole thing down).
2) Zach Bryan – American Heartbreak
I’m not saying that Zach Bryan IS the savior that country music has been waiting for, but he’s the best candidate that we’ve seen to date. At only 26 years old, Bryan has garnered a type of fame and fanbase that his predecessors Isbell and Simpson have never been able to attain, and his contemporary, Tyler Childers, doesn’t seem interested in. “Something in the Orange” spent weeks as the most streamed song on the internet, but radio stations and CMT won’t play it. Bryan doesn’t need CMT, Ticketmaster, or Nashville, but they’ll eventually need him. If Bryan can break through, perhaps his red dirt contemporaries will get their shot, too. All I can do is wait and hope for the day when Nashville learns to accept artists that navigate outside of its jurisdiction.
Part of why this album is ranked so high on my list is tied to what it represents in the country music landscape. As for the actual recorded music, is American Heartbreak a good album? Hell yeah, it is! It’s beautiful but messy. Some songs are polished while others seem half-finished and I’m here for all of it. The standout tracks on this album are “Something in the Orange”, “Happy Instead”, “Oklahoma City”, and “Billy Stay. Bryan’s song subjects are nothing new. He sings about love, the places he’s been, and the people he knows. His ability to translate his experiences into great lyrical songs and memorable music is just hard to beat.
How to Listen to American Heartbreak: Anywhere and always. That’s how we’ll overthrow the country music aristocracy.
1) Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
So, I’m writing this right after the new year. All the big blogs have published their album of the year lists for 2022. I’m admittedly lagging behind after celebrating the holidays to the fullest. I didn’t read any lists yet, but I read a bit about voter fatigue. It seems that people are tired of one man dominating the musical landscape for this long. Because of this, I think people will look back on 2022 and realize that this album was underrated. I believe this is the best album of the year and for me, it wasn’t really wasn’t that close. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers checks all boxes. It’s socially relevant; Lamar continues to push the boundaries of what can be talked about on a hip-hop album with songs like “We Cry Together”, “Mother I Sober”, and “Auntie Diaries”. It bangs too; “N95”, “Silent Hill”, and “Die Hard” all got plenty of radio and club play. It’s well-produced with an impeccable pace, the 72-minute run time seems so much shorter. I’m having a really difficult time being critical of this album. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is the emotional centerpiece of Kendrick Lamar’s catalog. While his first two albums told linear coming-of-age stories, Mr. Morale’s storytelling culls reminiscences from different parts of Lamar’s life. The songs address celebrity worship, the intersection of blackness and transgender identities, sexual assault, Lamar’s relationship with his father, and domestic violence/abuse. In a year of many good albums, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is an instant classic.
How to Listen to American Heartbreak: While you are moving. Driving, walking, or running. The music begs for movement.