Sunday, January 1, 2023

2022 in Review

Yet another strange year. For one, I shared some news about why live music and this blog haven’t exactly been my priority lately. I definitely saw more shows than either of the last two years, but with mixed results. Apparently, I’m not the only person who’s noticed that live concerts are kind of weird right now. I doubt that I will be much more active next year, but I may surprise myself yet.

Well, at least I bought music in greater quantities again, both old and new. It seems the wave of pandemic albums might be finally over. That’s not to imply the pandemic is over, just that the unique circumstances of altered recording and performances habits seem to have faded back into something we pretend is normal, and the music itself reflects that. Anyway, here are my favorite releases of 2022:
  • Anfängerfehler - s/t EP - Obviously my bias as a member of the live band is hard to ignore, but I really love the work that Tim (and Matt Johnson – no, not the one from The The) did with the production. It sounds lovely. You should probably listen to it.
  • Beach House - Once Twice Melody - Beach House continue to effortlessly create the best vibes, but I wish there were just a bit more drama. Victoria Legrand’s voice is soft and hushed throughout, never reaching its past transcendent peaks. The double album is an impressive achievement: there isn’t a bad song, although it does feel a touch overlong. I love the returning shoegaze vibes seen in full on 7 (2018), but I also love the “experimentation” with acoustic guitar. It leaves me feeling a bit sad for Victoria, though, who seems to have had profoundly rough times with online dating. She’s probably not alone in that.
  • Big Thief - Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You - Another expansive double album. Big Thief have been on the periphery of my awarness for a while but this one finally won me over. “Red Moon” is infectious, “Wake Me Up to Drive” is charmingly lofi, “Change” is plaintively poignant, and “Sparrow” is an excellent study of gender dynamics. The country affectations work fine for me, and I love the subtly psychedelic and occasionally outright bizarre lyrics.
  • Andrew Bird - Inside Problems - Sonically, this is something of a retread of My Finest Work Yet (2019), which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’m not complaining. I always admire Bird’s carefully constructed folk-pop and his understatedly virtuosic touches. The lyrics are less overtly political, but several are easy to read as socio-political commentary despite his claims in interviews that these songs were intended to be more personal and internal affairs. Bird also recently released “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” with Phoebe Bridgers, a well-crafted adaptation of a delightful Emily Dickinson poem.
  • Kikagaku Moyo - Kumoyo Island - I’m so sad that this is their last album before breaking up. It’s wildly creative, beautifully psychedelic, and playfully hard to pin down. It’s all over the place, yet always pleasurable.
  • Mogwai - “Boltfor” - Pretty par for the course for them, but since not everything they touch turns to gold, it’s still notable when they can drop such an uplifting and ebullient single.
  • The Smile - A Light for Attracting Attention - The exact midpoint between a Thom Yorke solo album and a full Radiohead album. It’s Yorke’s best non-Radiohead album, and if it were marketed as a Radiohead album, I might not even notice the difference. It’s not as good as A Moon Shaped Pool but it lives in that space perhaps more than anything else Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have done. I don’t know anything about Tom Skinner but his drumming is good. I can’t tell if the two dreamy older songs (“Skirting on the Surface” was even played by Radiohead once upon a time!) are simply just great songs, or if I’m biased because I’ve been listening to bootleg versions for ten years.
  • Stereolab - Pulse of the Early Brain: Switched On Volume 5 - I’m clearly just a sucker for this band. Be that as at may, this compilation does include the 1992 EP Low Fi, which is one of their finest releases and the first appearance of Mary Hansen and Andy Ramsay. It’s been out of print since the early 90s as far as I know, and the licensing is still complicated enough that it doesn’t appear on digital versions of the compilation. Intriguingly, two of the tracks appear to be previously unreleased extended versions, despite not being labeled as such. Much like the rest of the Switched On series, it features a wide mix of songs, but this set covers material that was too experimental or obscure even for those. Despite the name, four songs come from the sessions from their last album during their original career, Chemical Chords (2008), and those aren’t the only ones that I wouldn’t say came from their “early brain”. One wonders why they didn’t swap those for the incongruously early-era tracks on Electrically Possessed, or why they still left a couple songs to the sands of time, like the version of “Cadriopo” from the split single with Fugu or the demo of “The Eclipse” from the same split single that produced “Yes Sir! I Can Moogie!”. Admittedly, this is reaching quite close to the bottom of the barrel, so some of the tracks here are second-rate. Still, the gems still make it worth it.
  • The Subtanks - Prime Numbers EP - Okay, again we’ve got to talk about bias, but old friends Josh King of Joshua and the Ruins and Asher Mendel have finally reunited for a “proper” album, and it rocks. (I haven’t forgotten about Riff City Demons (2010), but this is a wide step ahead in terms of production and composition. I mean, just compare the versions of “Ambitions Renewed”!) The EP lives up to the bold claims of their own description. It keeps turning and changing, and there’s all sorts of sounds, ideas, and references in it. It never gets boring, not for a second.
  • The Veldt - Entropy Is the Mainline to God - The first new full album in 15 years since White Music for Black People (credited to Apollo Heights) is thick and a bit noisy, and the lyrics are frequently indecipherable, just as you’d expect from classic shoegazers. What I can discern is frequently quite explicitly political, which isn’t difficult for them to channel their energy and anger into. They also released the Electric Revolution (Rhythm and Drone) EP earlier in the year, but it only has two unique tracks, and neither is as good as anything on the album or the 2017 EPs.
  • Wilco - Cruel Country - I almost skipped this album after the last three were such mixed bags. This is their most compelling album since A Ghost Is Born (2004), and the most satisfyingly cohesive since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001). The country affections are almost entirely tasteful and well-integrated into their sound. I was worried it’d be a caricature, but it isn’t just a genre exercise. Jeff Tweedy’s voice is occasionally shaky, and there are (very) minor imperfections in the performances, but the project is an opportunity for Tweedy to wield some of his best lyrics, and the arrangements are generally quite good. It is maybe a bit overlong, and it can feel a bit tedious by the time you get to side four, but the sum total is impressive.
  • Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Super Deluxe Reissue] - Okay, an eight-disc version of any album is probably too much even for a masterpiece, but still, I can’t resist this sort of thing sometimes. The radio session interview is a bit cringe, but the live versions with weird intermediate lineups of the band with Tweedy on lead guitar are somewhat special. The real treasure, though, is all the alternate studio versions, even if there isn’t a single one that bests the originally released versions. It’s also great to have these in such high fidelity instead of the incomplete, glitchy mess that has long circulated on bootlegs. But much to my surprise, not even everything from the bootlegs is on this release! Then again, I don’t know if anyone really needs a seventh version of “Kamera”. I saw another review criticize the duplicated transition from “Ashes of American Flags” to “Heavy Metal Drummer” on the Unified Theory of Everything disc, as if that exact moment wasn’t the subject of one of the most pivotal scenes from the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart film (2002). Obviously this is only relevant for superfans, and I think I’ve just given away where I stand.
Actually, there was a lot of good music this year. So here are some extra honorable mentions:
  • Belle & Sebastian - A Bit of Previous - This album has moments that feel like conscious throwbacks to their glory days, but most of it continues the threads of their last few albums, which is to say the music is a bit too precious and overproduced. Nonetheless, their blend of maturity and ageless playfulness is as rewarding as ever. There are few standout moments and some well-intentioned but awkward political statements (what’s the deal with “Do It for Your Country”?), but I appreciate that they are trying to push themselves and expand their horizons.
  • Cremant Ding Dong - assorted singles - They’re still going, although they haven’t really shown any signs of changing the formula. Well, Eva (the cute cat) sadly passed, but Rosa (the new cat, also cute) looks uncannily similar. Somehow every song is still a banger.
  • Cup Collector - The Interior Key - Is this an EP? A maxi-single? A mini-album? It doesn’t matter, of course. This is almost like a best-of compilation of CC’s styles. Each track is a different method of reaching a similar vibe: warm, cozy guitar drones. These songs make me feel settled in and at peace. Jim also released a track under his full name (James David Fitzpatrick) that’s in a somewhat related vibe, but more spontaneous: it’s just him freestyling on an acoustic guitar with the windows open. The heavy reverb suits it well.
  • The Cure - Wish [Deluxe Reissue] - The Cure’s reissue series continues it’s lackadaisical pace and half-hearted repackaging. The much-hyped remaster (or is it a remix? Some fans are really missing the slap sound from “High”, and honestly it is weird that it was removed, especially since it’s still in the 12" mix!) is not really much different than the original, and the only bonus tracks of note are the lovely instrumentals from the fan club-only Lost Wishes EP (1994) and one extra instrumental outtake (“A Wendy Band”). The rest are forgettable remixes and another slew of at best marginally interesting demos. And seriously, what is the point of the Partscheckruf Mix of “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”? And why is the mastering of the 12" mix of “Doing the Unstuck” so much obviously worse than what was already released on Join the Dots (2004) 18 years ago? At least this time I don’t think there are any re-recorded vocals on this one.
  • Ian Fisher - Burnt Tongue - This album is a bit softer than what came before, probably in large part due to the influence of producer Jonas David. It works for the more sentimental songs like “A Mother’s Love” and “I’ll Be There”, but the darker and moodier songs like “I’m Burning” and “How Far” are missing a bit of heft. The lyrics and performances are still great, though. Ian also released the pseudo-album Marcella & Peggy Go Driving via Fanklub. It’s just sparse arrangements of his favorite country tunes, many of which he’s been playing for years on stage. There are no real surprises, but it’s nice to have recordings of his mellifluous melancholy voice on these songs.
  • Lutzilla - First We Tape Manhattan - Punkier than I was expecting, meaning that I hear some traces of Fehlfarben. The lyrics are as incisive as ever, particularly the critiques of consumer culture and social media. Uli’s bass steals the show, and Carola’s drumming gives these songs the solid rhythm they deserve. “Was bleibt!?”, rerecorded from Lutz’s solo 2019 album Selbstportraits, is a marked improvement with the help of his compatriots.
  • Mitski - Laurel Hell - I didn’t like Be the Cowboy (2018) as much as everyone else, so I told myself I should keep my expectations low, but this album is a step up again. Mitski tries on a load of retro sounds and commands them with ease. Her lyrics grappling with fame and career choices feel strangely relatable; certainly “Working for the Knife” applies to more than just indie rock stardom. The glide guitar touches are great, too.
  • Sharon Van Etten - We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong - Great album title, great music, incredible voice, and good themes, but I still don’t actually connect with the lyrics much.
  • Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin - Ali - The Malian guitarist teamed up with everyone’s favorite vibe-setting Texans to cover the former’s father’s songs. The result is a good blend of both artists’ strengths, and yet it has a way of blending together a bit too much.