Poll 33 — 2022 Albums, Continued

Siri, can you tell me where I belong?

Album I Listened To The Most In 2022

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you know what kind of a year I had. If you’re reading this and you’re also aware of Abel Tesfaye and The Weeknd, you might wonder why I was messing around with Dawn FM at all. That couldn’t have been good for me mentally, or spiritually, or ethically. Here was an ice cold shower of an album on which the star relentlessly pointed out the ways in which the language we use in pop music shadowed the way we discuss mortality. Asphyxiation, suicide pacts, the steady tick of the clock, murder and sacrifice, frailty, the lure of oblivion: it was all there, set to music so sleek, mechanical, and inevitable that it seemed supernatural, well beyond the sphere of human influence. It was absurdly on the nose, but so, I have learned, is death. The concept was the bardo as a traffic jam where the only entertainment was a lite radio station (and Jim Carrey, of all people), and Tesfaye realized it all with such dead-eyed precision and unswerving commitment to scene-setting that it really did take on the quality of a descent into a synthetic netherworld. The Weeknd has often tried to be scary and come up short, and the legit spookiness of Dawn FM hints at why that was. He’s often sung, ominously, about partying and empty casual sex as a vague cover for deep self-destructive feelings. But his real muse has always been the death drive itself, and this time, he’s finally cut to the chase. This album is the apotheosis of every corrosive idea he’s had since he first gave us the creeps with House Of Balloons, and its relative absence from the year end roundups suggests to me that it scared the fuck out of everybody. Me, I was already frightened, fixated on the transition between being and nonbeing and already half in the tunnel to nowhere that Dawn FM asks us to inhabit. So maybe I was the target audience, and maybe I was particularly susceptible, and maybe my elevation of Renaissance (just barely) over the album I played the most reflected my choice (just barely) of life over death.

Best Album Title

Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong

Best Album Cover

Topical Dancer. Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul look like two halves of a cell dividing — made of the same substance, but stretching apart and achieving conditional autonomy. For this album at least, they’re still linked, sharing the same bloodstream, finishing each other’s thoughts. Charlotte is the face; Bolis has his back turned to the camera. She’s leaning back and taking a step while he’s steadying himself, and the silly putty figure they make with their elongated arms is a lasso big enough to ensnare the unwary.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

It pleased my pop kid soul that Midnights came in different flavors with different fanservice shots of Taylor on the cover. I got the green one.

Most Welcome Surprise

Good as Two Hands was, I didn’t think that there was enough variation in the Big Thief sound for the group to sustain interest over the course of a double album. Not only did they manage that, but they picked up a sense of humor, too.

Biggest Disappointment

Megan Thee Stallion remains one of the very best rappers in the business — a vocalist capable of synthesizing syrupy H-town flow, throwback gangsta rap, hyphy, and old school boom-bap hard rhyme every time she steps to the microphone. That hasn’t changed. This year, though, she retired the grossmusing sex rhymes and applied that voice to earnest material that foregrounded her personal destabilization. All autobiographical specifics aside, her confessional turn meant that you didn’t have to delve too far into the deep structure to recognize that she was rhyming about the same stuff that everybody else was rhyming about. For the first time ever, her verses felt predictable. Even that would have been permissible and maybe even enjoyable if she hadn’t handed Traumazine over to a team of pedestrian beatmakers. I’m reminded of the early-middle stretch of Nas’s career when he wasted strong autobiographical lyrics on motor-free productions that sounded, at best, like they’d been knocked off in an hour, and at worst like outright sabotage. Nas was young and had plenty of time to recover. Megan Thee Stallion is pushing thirty. She’d better keep an eye on that hourglass.

Album That Opens The Strongest  

Expert In A Dying Field. This is the best Beths album — the one that finds the right balance between the frantic indiepop of the debut and the meditative mush-leaning sound of Jump Rope Gazers. The first three songs give you everything that makes this band great: indelible melodies, lovelorn lyrics, smart small-combo arrangements, decorative lead guitar, a pinch of Kiwi gloom, romantic fatalism, action and drama and Bananarama, and a tendency to push everything right to the brink of the red without ever giving into the twin temptations of obscurantism and effrontery. After the clamor of “Silence Is Golden” ceases, the best one is still six songs away. That’s “When You Know You Know,” a folk-rock confection with a tune and chord progression worthy of a Finn brother, and and atmosphere as immersive a storm on the Tasman Sea.

Album That Closes The Strongest

If I have one piece of advice today for all my friends who love music, it’s this: get the Tim Bernardes album. Mil Coisas Invisíveis is brilliantly written and shockingly beautiful, and somehow manages to feel like a lost album from 1974 without ever being the least bit annoying about it. It’s all in his neighborly relationship to the microphone, his wizardly command of the string section, his internalization and easy expression of Brazilian rhythm, and his absolute faith in the expressive possibilities of pop melody and performance. The album is in Portuguese, which is, for some reason that I don’t understand, always ten thousand times harder than Spanish to grok; Google Translate is your friend, but even if you just sit with it, you’ll get the gist. A version of Mil Coisas Invisíveis that omitted the last four songs would still make my Top Twenty. But the stretch of the record from “A Balada De Tim Bernardes” to the conclusion finds a perfect middle ground between Robin Pecknold and Caetano Veloso that didn’t previous exist at any latitude I knew, tropical or otherwise. One might say that the album itself engendered the map. Or one might just shut up and listen.

Best Production Over The Course Of A Full Album, and, not so coincidentally, the Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

You’d think I’d say Beyoncé here, and yeah, that’d be an excellent answer. The seamless integration of samples from African-American drag and ball culture into beats that would play equally well at a campus LBGTQ mixer, a theater opening, a political rally, and a sports stadium is both a remarkable technical feat and a subversive work of smuggling worthy of El Chapo. But I cannot tell a lie: Sebastian Krys made the Impostors sound ridiculously good on The Boy Named If, with every instrument playfully elbowing every other instrument, and every musical gesture tickling the next one in the ribs. It was as if he’d spent his life studying every Elvis Costello album and inhaling all the details, and I wouldn’t know anything about that, nope, no sirree Bob.

Band Of The Year

The Beths

2022 Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Hold On Baby by King Princess. Lots of good melodies, but those hamfisted Jim Steinman gestures got old in a hurry. When you solicit Taylor Hawkins to play drums on a track, and the whole thing is already so grandiose that it barely registers, you’ve got a problem of scale that needs to be corrected at the fundamental level.

Most Convincing Historical Re-Creation

GIFT, a letter-perfect revival of early shoegaze by a singer-producer with a bright future in studio sound matching if the rock star thing doesn’t work out for him. I’ve seen him live, and I kinda think it’s going to work out.

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy

Of Montreal’s Freewave Lucifer F<ck F^ck F>ck. Even typing that out feels onerous. I’ve got ninety other albums by this artist (just barely exaggerating here); why wouldn’t I dig the ninety-first? Welp, eventually, even the deepest well runs dry.

Most Consistent Album

Un Verano Sin Ti. On Grammy morning, I thought to myself: a win for Harry Styles will make me happy. A win for Beyoncé will make me happier still. A win for Kendrick and hip-hop will thrill me, and I will be tickled pink if Bad Bunny takes home the Album of the Year trophy for a set recorded entirely in Spanish. Seemed like a long shot, yeah, but it’s hard to argue that any 2022 set was more significant. Un Verano was a Caribbean wave that swelled so high that you could see it from Indiana, and proof positive that merengue, reggaetón, dembow, and all other forms of urbano were going to be major forces in the worldwide marketplace for the foreseeable future. As for Kendrick, I figured that if a rapper couldn’t win Best Album for a set where the songs explicitly apologize for homophobia and praise transgender relatives, it’d never happen. Beyoncé is always a good sport when she’s not stuck in traffic, but sitting in the audience and watching Lizzo and Adele tacitly apologize to her for getting hardware that, on the merits, should rightly go to her has got to be getting old by now. Harry ended up taking the prize, but the consensus seems to be that his performance of “As It Was” was kinda lackluster. Bad Bunny, by contrast, stormed through “Despues De La Playa” in front of eight million people, backed up by a team of cabezudos and a Puerto Rican drumline. That was better than Shakira at the Super Bowl, and more gratifying to a fan of pop en Español than any golden gramophone could ever be.

Most Inconsistent Album

Regina Spektor. Yes, she is as irritatingly off-Broadway as ever, but it’s kind of cool hearing her stick to her guns in the mushrock era, standing by the Pine Sol-scrubbed production and crystal-clear elocution that was always her stock in trade. There used to be a lot of stuff like this; now it’s pretty much just Regina.  But… what’s with the eight minute showtune with Moribund The Burgermeister voices? What about “Loveology”, what in the name of Irving Berlin is that?

Album Most Scrupulously Designed To Annoy Me

The Smile. This sounds like the glitch music that gets played during a videogame when your avatar is stuck in a corridor and you can’t advance, and you know the computer is about to crash. Thom Yorke gives me insight into the way other people experience Jordan Pundik or some other deliberately annoying pop-punk vocalist.  Instant revulsion: it’s what I feel.

Saddest Turn Of Events

Donda 2. It feels strange to avert our eyes and ears from this. On the other hand, it’s debatable whether Kanye even intended it to be an album. I don’t even know if the version I heard was the real set, or if the parameters of a real set are discernible amidst the fog. Do we need to buy his stem player to fairly assess this? How far must we go to humor him? Kanye is one of the great artists of the 21st Century, or was, but he is presently on social media saying that Elon Musk is a Chinese clone. That’s how he is spending his time — doing Nazi salutes with actual neo-Nazis.  He’s gone from sessions with Paul McCartney and Beyoncé to hanging out with the likes of Candace Owens. Kanye’s ingratitude to his backers, supporters, co-workers, and mentors is a matter of public record, and it’s worthy of disapproval. His decision to squander the goodwill of his fanbase by indulging in stupid controversies that are far beneath him is contemptible, and an insult to show business and his formidable artistic gifts. When so many great artists struggle to get the attention they deserve, watching Kanye throw away his platform on a bunch of nonsense has been excruciating. The whole thing is heartbreaking and unprecedented. He’s one of the great conceptual musicians in pop history, and we’re losing him in broad daylight.

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Springsteen’s Only The Strong Survive.

Also Brutal

Lizzo’s Special. She’s been good in the past, but this one is like Cee-Lo singing over Katy Perry’s worst beats with lyrics by the facilitator of the campus self-empowerment seminar. Hard pass.

Album You Learned The Words To Quickest and also Least Believable Perspective On An Album

Pusha T, “Cocaine’s Dr. Seuss,” is a 45 year old professional entertainer. There are many gray hairs in his beard. I am 100% certain that he does not want to stand on a streetcorner and peddle narcotics. I’m even surer that he doesn’t want to go through the trouble of murdering anybody. It’s awfully fun to indulge in his ludicrous kingpin fantasies, though.

Most Sympathetic Perspective Over The Course Of An Album

Carly Rae Jepsen, The Loneliest Time. This year’s Carly Rae is not the most consistent Carly Rae: some songs on the new one follow Dua Lipa to the disco only to get lost among the strobe lights. It was also surprising to hear this connoisseur of melody choose uninteresting notes from time to time. But the character comes through beautifully: she’s still an enraptured romantic who finds kindness and trust sexy. They are. This is also a good place to give props to Jensen McRae, whose bildungsroman Are You Happy Now? narrowly missed the albums list above. She writes with great frankness about sexual assault, racial discrimination, and the discovery of her own desires. Gotta love that young adult fiction — at least some of which is bound to be young adult reality.

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Originally Thought It Was

Component System With The Auto Reverse. At first the constant quipping bugged me. Once I learned to live with it, I began to appreciate it as an expression of Mike Eagle’s peculiar personality and an irreducible element of a tranche of very good rap songs from a very good rap career. I’m still not sure I find it very funny, though, and sometimes I fear that funny is the point.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Sometimes, Forever

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

A cool thing about King’s Disease III is that Nas is utterly relaxed throughout. He neither worries about his status or his age; in a year where other artists were consumed with thoughts of their own mortality, he kicks back, lights up a cigar, pops open a case of vintage flows, and pours it all out into a pyramid of champagne glasses. The way in which he takes his continuing relevance for granted is pretty badass. His late career exercises in male bonding with Chauncey Hollis don’t feel like creative adaptations to his biggest perceived weakness — his occasional struggle to find beats worthy of his lyricism — it just seems like he’s found a friend. I hope they keep it up.

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

The Arcade Fire, WE. Somebody needs to grit his or her teeth and pull the plug on this project. Nobody’s getting much out of it anymore except the publicists, and even they didn’t seem to have their hearts in it.

Rookie Of The Year

2022 was the best year for emo music in a long while. Part of the reason it was so gratifying was that the exemplary albums, while recognizably emo, all sounded very different. A Korean guy going by the name of Asian Glow put about about fifty projects that incorporated elements from shoegaze and noise pop. The Pool Kids narrowly missed by Top Twenty with a mainstream-leaning singalong set that played like Paramore three and a half. Oso Oso got weird and fragmented, Joyce Manor revived the spirit of Weezer Blue, Anxious combined borderline-screamo vocals with Beach Boys-style group harmonies with no dissonance whatsoever. A Worcester, Massachusetts band called Peregrine startled me with a record of tremendous raw force, while the superb Caracara of Philadelphia stole tricks from smoothed-out ’90s bands like the Gin Blossoms and The Wallflowers. But my favorite of the bunch was Carly Cosgrove, a trio led by a formidably talented guitarist who spun out barbed, mathy six-string patterns while howling about expectations and various misadventures. Turns out they were recorded by Joe Reinhard of Algernon Cadwallader. This scene may be getting long in the tooth, but its practitioners still take care of their own.

Singles, individual accomplishments to come soon!