When it’s hard to figure out which albums of a given year most stand out from the rest, is it because a year was uncommonly good, or is it because all of its records have bunched together in decent mediocrity? This year, I thought one reason I couldn’t quite tell might have been because I haven’t listened to as much new music – or perhaps haven’t listened sufficiently attentively. But looking back on the year to compile this annual pick of five, I also realise it’s because the year felt long. Albums I thought were released last year were actually, it turns out, as much a part of 2022 as albums that came much later.
This is a function of the year more broadly, I think: politically it has been long, with three Prime Ministers and an intensely reported war; personally, as Anna and I began to learn how to negotiate this latest stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year felt as if it had two uneven halves, one more and one somewhat less cautious; and, more generally, time is weird these days. Who knows when years or months or days begin or end? Regular clocks seem a pre-2020 thing.
Still, on review 2022 had much good music. Some previous members of these august “albums of” lists produced really great records: Calexico’s El Mirador continued their absurdly good recent spree; First Aid Kit’s Palomino should have brought a slump record after their remarkable run so far, and yet it proved another corker; Bill Callaghan returned to form with YTI⅃AƎЯ; Courtney Marie Andrews’ Loose Future was just beautiful; and so on. I’ve also recommended to others at various times in the year Cate Le Bon’s Pompeii, Harry Styles’ Harry’s House and Jenny Hval’s Classic Objects.
As I like to do, though, I’ve picked below albums which seem to me to do something new-ish, or at least strike me as being exciting. That’s not – as usual – to say these will be the records I listened to most in 2022, or will carry forward with most enthusiasm into 2023. But they are, for my money, the most interesting ones I’ve listened to all year – and that counts for a lot.
Kathryn Joseph – for you who are the wronged
I knew this one would be on my list from more or less the first play: it has such an atmosphere, a totalised mood which carries through from its first note without ever being boring. Joseph’s voice is both unerringly confident and somehow evocatively diaphanous; her songs are savage whilst also gentle. The album is perfect for driving through a city at night: plangent and calm whilst also seedily sinister; dark but studded constantly with brightness; somehow both slow and speedy. It’s neon searing starlight, a warm bubble in close proximity to dingy cold. It was released in February and is a perfect winter record – so catch it now, while it’s freshly relevant.
Black Country, New Road – Ants from Up There
Rousingly anthemic where Joseph is slyly gentle, this album is so energetic, warm and innovative that it finally wormed its way past my Brummie’s vague displeasure at the band’s insistence that their being named after a major arterial road of the mighty West Midlands is the result of mere chance, of a website mashing words randomly together. This southern insouciance can be forgiven, though, when the people committing it prove themselves to be the worthy heirs to Stornoway’s crown as the most unpredictably melodic songsmiths in (their respective corners of ) indie-pop. From “Chaos Space Marine” on, this album is full of twists and turns which surprise and entertain, without ever overwhelming what are often rather subtle songs. That’s not an easy balance to strike, and the band carry it off here as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. Cracking stuff.
Julia Jacklin – Pre Pleasure
From Beyoncé to Taylor Swift, 2022 seems like a particularly good year for pop – it felt vital again after a few years in its periodic doldrums. If Jacklin’s album isn’t exactly tilting for that kind of mainstream audience, it is nevertheless very much in the vein of the year’s descent into danceability. Literate and unafraid to go slow, the album also has moments of real pace and energy; in both moods it maintains an identity but also an accessibility which made it an instant favourite of mine … and which I think will earn Jacklin a serious platform for whatever she does next. That’s not to say this album is mainly interesting as juvenalia – this is Jacklin’s third record and is fully mature even as it proves to be a lot of fun. Rather, it is a statement and a calling card – a proper album with a beginning, middle and an end … but also signature standalone songs. Get it, it put “I Was Neon” on repeat, and become a lifelong fan.
Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
Bear with me when I say this album almost didn’t make the cut. Why? Because it is so long. The album begins with “Change”, which comes across as a rousing Americana ballad and hits all my most predictable buttons. Adrianna Lenker’s vocals in particular create an instant connection with the listener: close to the ear, but also full of mystery. But this cues the listener in wrong: the gentle fireside stuff gives way immediately to the far more skewwhiff “Time Escaping”, and then to the half-ironic fiddle and mouth harp of “Spud Infinity”. At this point, the album still has an hour to go – and persist it does, in the way a true double-album might once have done, demanding attention and repeat listens. At first I found this meanderint But you know what? It rewards the detours. Return to Dragon New and you’ll find fresh stuff every time – a new song will jump out at you, a different shift or new lyric. There is as much here as in any Father John Misty album, and yet you don’t have to put up with him to get the gold. Make it your friend on a few long train journeys, or a couple of January nights. It’ll stay with you in more ways than one.
Julian Lage – View With A Room
Picking this one feels like a cop-out, because Lage really does not need my praise, or indeed anyone else’s. A child prodigy and a faculty member at Stanford in his teens, anything Lage puts out is going to be – musically, technically, theoretically – better than most anything any other musician can produce in a given year. But on View With A Room Lage is remarkably restrained and finds beauty in space rather than razzle-dazzle in virtuosity. Joined by his preternaturally sensitive drummer, Dave King, and unusually expressive bassist, Jorge Roeder, Lage might well here be placed in such fertile territory by the addition of a second guitarist, the peerless Bill Frisell (yeah, this album really is cheating). The result is a very human record, a collection of ten compositions that create texture out of the most careful and even simple threads. Everyone should listen to Lage; here he has made an album which will make them want to.