Top Albums of 2022 | Mike Rengel

Photo of Gang of Youths courtesy of Grandstand Media

My standard disclaimer applies: art gets cranky when you try to rank, categorize, grade, or quantify it. The best albums of the year…that’s in the eye of the beholder. But these are my favorites, my constant companions through a year where constancy increasingly felt like an antiquated notion.

The Top 10:

Gang of Youths | angel in realtime. (Mosy/Warner)

When I was in Minneapolis during the summer of 2021, I drove around the entire time with local independent station 89.3 The Current on the radio. They played all kinds of good stuff: old school indie & college rock, and great new tunes. One day, on the way to stock up on beer to take back home to St. Louis, a song I’d never heard before grabbed my attention. Stopped at a red light, I Shazamed it, and discovered it was an Australian band called Gang of Youths, the song was “Angel of 8th Ave.” I made a note of it, I knew it was special and that these guys had to be special. I did some research and found out that it was one of a couple of songs that were slated for their new album that was supposed to be released the year after. It became one of my most anticipated new releases.

angel in realtime. finally debuted in February 2022. It’s a wide-reaching, earnest, emotionally powerful album. There are shades of prime era U2, The National, Wilco circa Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and David Gray’s White Ladder (two albums that expertly blended analog and digital sounds), the orchestral art-folk of Sufjan Stevens, Steve Reich-influenced minimalist composition, and more. Frontman Dave Le’aupepe’s words and vocals sound nothing like (but tap into the poetic power and vivid lyricism of) Adam Duritz. angel in realtime. focuses on the life and death of Le’aupepe’s father, who passed away from cancer in 2018. It turns out his dad lied about a lot of things: he wasn’t half white like he claimed, and he had a secret second family. The record bounds between, and attempts to balance, remembrances of a loving, complex man, and sorting through deception and bombshell information, all while contemplating charting your own future while still being influenced by those who raised, loved, and nurtured us. It’s also an album that examines indigenous identity (it turns out his dad was fully Samoan, not half like he always claimed), family, and the people and things that help us survive grief. It’s a remarkable album, able to put a smile on your face and a lightness in your heart like few things seem capable of these days.

Marillion | An Hour Before It’s Dark (Intact/earMUSIC)
An Hour Before It’s Dark, the 20th studio album from veteran UK emotional rockers Marillion, is largely concerned with social responsibility, seen through the lens of the environment and the COVID pandemic. The band have pulled off the unlikely trick of turning such heady themes into adventurous songs that are not only some of their most vigorous and upbeat in years, but ultimately, somehow hopeful.

There’s plenty to dig into here—charging opener “Be Hard on Yourself” and finale “Care” (a moving, and sometimes funky, slab of art rock) ask the listener to do each of those things. But instead of coming off as hectoring, they’re inspiring. Highlight “The Crow and the Nightingale” begins as quiet meditation, a tribute to and remembrance of Leonard Cohen. It eventually winds its way into a crescendo, a celebration of art as a filter that makes pain and loss not only bearable, but somewhat comprehensible. One of Steve Rothery’s trademark lyrical guitar solos launches Steve Hogarth’s age-tempered, but still supple, vocals as he exclaims “wrapping the sun with silk – make it something that can be looked at…without hurting.” The song is also bolstered by string quartet In Praise of Folly, along with one of several appearances from vocal group Choir Noir; each guest’s presence adds another wrinkle and dimension to the band’s ever-evolving sound.

The band has recently spoken about probably not having many albums left in them. The resulting urgency has given them clarity, focus, and drive. This determination seeps into the entire album, and enlivens the music, like the splashes of paint that make up the ticking clock on the album cover. With each note, it’s as if Marillion are saying: We’ve got time. But not a lot. Make it count.

Paint a picture, sing a song, plant some flowers in the park
Get out and make it better
You’ve got an hour before it’s dark.

Tears for Fears | The Tipping Point (Concord)

Tears for Fears’ trio of 1980s albums had a way of making psychological struggles and the war within ourselves feel universal, and distilling the universal down to pieces that could slot into our own lives. The band split acrimoniously in 1991, with Curt Smith leaving and Roland Orzabal carrying on with the name, essentially as a solo project, for a few more years. Orzabal and Smith’s 2004 reunion album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, was a spirited return, and remains highly underrated. And then, everyone who loves this band had to sit and wait almost 20 years for them to make another one. Honestly, it seemed as if it would never happen, especially given the frequently contentious, sometimes nonexistent, relationship between Orzabal and Smith, even as they occasionally toured as Tears for Fears, and sometimes seemed to be having a good time making music together. So while it’s simply nice that they reunited, what makes The Tipping Point so fulfilling is that, by simply sitting down and writing in the same space again, they reconnected, and made this brilliant, beautiful record about loss and redemption.

The Tipping Point has a little bit of everything that makes the group great. Parts of it make you think of the dark synthpop of The Hurting, and their very early days. Some of it (especially the grand “Master Plan”) evokes the Technicolor psychedelia of The Seeds of Love and Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. Album highlight “Rivers of Mercy” could be a grown-up relative of something from Songs from the Big Chair. But it’s not to say the album simply updates past glories. The bulk of the record sounds like something that only the group, at their current age and with everything they’ve gone through, could’ve made. “Long, Long, Long Time” simply sounds like Tears for Fears in the year 2022. Nothing illustrates this more than lead track “No Small Thing,” which builds from just acoustic guitar and voice, into a sweeping electro-analog meditation on aging and measures of freedom.

The best thing about Tears for Fears’ reunion is reminding us that sometimes it only takes a small amount of kindling, a small moment of honest connection, to revitalize an idea or a relationship that was thought to be dormant, dead, or dying.

Alvvays | Blue Rev (Polyvinyl)

Alvvays take their time. Blue Rev, their first LP in five years, and only their third since 2014’s self-titled debut, is worth the wait. It’s packed tight with the band’s trademark dreamy, shoegazey indie pop and acrobatic, indelible melodies. Think My Bloody Valentine’s walls of distortion coupled with Neil Finn’s extraplanar melodic sense. Molly Rankin is adept at adding surprising new tricks to ever more sophisticated evolutions of the band’s noisy, jangly bread and butter. On Blue Rev, her insecurities duke it out with her incisive wit. It’s a record as sensitive as it is brash, all burnished to within an inch of the power pop ideal.

Soccer Mommy | Sometimes, Forever (Loma Vista)

Sophie Allison has always had a 1990s heart. Her brand of indie is often conflicted and angsty, emotional and knife-edged. Sometimes, Forever, her third album proper, is produced by Daniel Lopatin, known for esoteric electronica as Oneohtrix Point Never, and for 1980s-sympathetic production work, including helping The Weeknd rise to Super Bowl heights. Those two are seemingly strange bedfellows, but the collaboration sharpens every note of Allison’s already well-honed songs, and introduces postmodern swirls and synths that feel natural, never grafted on. “Shotgun,” one of my favorite songs of 2022, is a shining example of how it all comes together.

Beth Orton | Weather Alive (Partisan)

Weather Alive, Orton’s first album in six years, could have sounded tentative. Instead, it’s quietly assured, and refreshed, incorporating jazz into her trademark electro-folk. It’s akin to opening all of the windows in the house to greet an oncoming cool front. Every song sounds like a lungful of brisk, revitalizing air.” Check out my full-length review at:
http://theartsstl.com/beth-orton-weather-alive-partisan/

Belle & Sebastian | A Bit of Previous (Matador)

A Bit of Previous, the latest from Belle & Sebastian, is the first album of theirs I’ve really loved in 15 years. Sure, there’s been plenty to enjoy; every album has been worth listening to. But this is the first time in a long time I have felt an effortless love for the band. Their muscular and diverse modern sound, a mix of R&B, chiming indie, bits of gospel, pristine electronica, dance grooves, and more, is a million miles away from their beloved twee early chamber days, and on full display here. But no matter how sophisticated, and how old they (and their audience) get, Belle & Sebastian will always be appealing outsiders who started their own club, and ended up being far cooler than anything conventionally cool, by simply being themselves. The band will always be Stuart Murdoch’s baby, but he has never sounded as self-assured, and as comfortable handing the reins to the rest of the band, as he does here. The group has so many writers, and so many voices now, but they all sound like an aspect of Belle & Sebastian, even when they speak with their own distinction. It’s always a brilliant thing when a long-term favorite hits a later-career peak.

Midnight Oil | Resist (Sony Music)

“Midnight Oil made their early name with an energetic fusion of punk and pub rock. Over the years, they ushered additional elements into their sound, including jangle rock and electronic underpinnings. Resist draws from all of this, showing the full palette of sounds that the band is capable of. The album-opening title track opens with an almost hymnal bit of organ, before bursting into a driving, anthemic verse and chorus. It’s a classic bit of Midnight Oil, and deftly highlights guitarist Jim Moginie’s gift for steady, underrated melodic songcraft. It’s also a state of the global union, decrying blindness to our many emergencies, declaring that in a world ever more aflame, ‘we’re all refugees’.” Check out my full-length review at: http://theartsstl.com/midnight-oil-resist-sony-music/

Wilco | Cruel Country (dBpm)
Pandemic restrictions kept Wilco from their rehearsal space/studio/nexus the Loft; when they finally reconvened to work on new music, they wanted to reconnect by playing together in the same room, and recording live, as a band, instead of splicing together takes and tracks. Wilco aren’t a country band. Hell, they haven’t even been an alt.country band for 25 years. But in many ways, Cruel Country is the most “country,” and the most traditional sounding thing the band has recorded in years. Traditional doesn’t equate to staid, however. At 21 songs, it’s perhaps a bit too long, but Cruel Country’s consistency of tone is engaging, and the songs, augmented with plenty of chiming and dreamy folk-rock moments, are stuffed full of emotional twists and balms. It’s an exploration of the turbulent inner world we’ve all experienced over the past three years, as well as a lament for, and ultimately tentative embrace of, our problematic country. Jeff Tweedy has rarely sounded as assured as a songwriter than he does here, and Wilco plays together, and off each other, with an effortless precision that only comes from comfort, intimacy, and shared history.

MUNA | MUNA (Saddest Factory/Dead Oceans)

MUNA’s debut About U was an arresting look at young adult confusion, heartbreak and angst, seen through the lens of queer identity, all wrapped in a blanket of dark, lush synth pop. Followup, 2019’s Saves the World aimed for the rafters but fell flat, prioritizing attempts at flash over hooks. The trio’s third, self-titled album is their most confident music to date. MUNA augments their synth pop with live instrumentation and a touch of acoustic introspection reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers (who signed the band to her new Saddest Factory label, and also lends vocals to album opener “Silk Chiffon”). “Silk Chiffon,” an ode to queer joy, is, by the way, what the kids call a bop. It’s only one of numerous charmingly engaging and immediate songs here. Themes of moving on (“Runner’s High”), self-acceptance (“Kind of Girl”), and going hard for what you want after years trying to figure out what exactly that was in the first place (“What I Want”) share space with songwriter and lead vocalist Katie Gavin’s overarching examinations of desire vs. acceptance. It all comes together beautifully in the electro-flecked acoustic closer “Shooting Star.” MUNA is a compelling, well-crafted snapshot of young adulthood, when you’re frequently wiser than your years, yet still making it up as you go.

Honorable Mentions:

The Weeknd | Dawn FM (XO/Republic)

In which The Weeknd, producer Daniel Lopatin, and yes, that Jim Carrey come up with an album that’s at once world-conqueringly accessible and as deeply weird as almost anything you’ll ever hear on the Top 40 charts. Dawn FM imagines the light at the end of the tunnel at the moment of death as a radio station. It turns out this station plays a lot of The Weeknd. You never get the urge to change the frequency, though—it’s an expertly crafted set of 1980s influenced pop/R&B, equal parts gleaming synth pop and the best of Michael Jackson. And it wouldn’t be a Weeknd album without it going to some dark, uncomfortable places. But here, for possibly the first time in Abel Tesfaye’s career, he, or maybe his characters, or both, sound truly self-aware of some of the harm they’ve caused others, and themselves. Come for the pop thrills, stay for the ambitious concept, self-awareness, and embrace of oddity.

Angel Olsen | Big Time (Jagjaguwar)

Angel Olsen has always been a torch singer trapped in an alt-country/indie singer-songwriter’s body. Or maybe it’s the other way around. On various albums, either of those facets of her music has gotten the upper hand. Big Time is the first time in her discography that the country, the indie, and the timeless chanteuse have existed in harmony. It’s a record full of sweeping declarations, small confessions, and an intimate atmosphere that rewards repeat, and close, listens.

The Smile | A Light for Attracting Attention (XL)
Fittingly for a band that is two thirds comprised of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, the Smile often sounds like an amalgam, and continuation, of Radiohead’s various guises and evolutions. A Light for Attracting Attention is a buffet of dreamy art rock, paranoid alt rock, and electronic soundscapes. But the Smile’s secret weapon, and catalyst, is drummer Tom Skinner. Skinner’s jazz background (he is one of the two drummers in British jazz group Sons of Kemet) gives the songs an irresistible avant garde rhythm section that makes them more adventurous, not to mention more unsettling.The quality of these songs, along with the energy and interplay of the band, suggest that even more intriguing things are to come from the Smile.

Father John Misty | Chloe & the Next 20th Century (Sub Pop/Bella Union)

Josh Tillman is adept at stepping into other people’s sonic shoes. Here, he channels early 20th century popular song and mid-century crooners—as well as countrypolitan sounds on the outstanding “Goodbye Mr. Blue.” (A song about a cat, and a relationship, and how indeed “the last time comes too soon.”) But it’s more than just playing around with genres. Misty’s best work is that of a man who inhabits, but is not quite made for, these times. Chloe & the Next 20th Century uses old sounds to paint a picture of a man out of time, both with lovers and with the times he inhabits. Overall, this is a strong return to form—God’s Favorite Customer left me pretty cold after his excellent run of first three LPs.

Lo Moon | A Modern Life (Thirty Tigers/The Orchard)

Lo Moon’s debut album inhabited an unmistakable mid-period Talk Talk vein. Followup A Modern Life finds a band that started out doing one thing really well stretching out into a more expansive, almost proggy, space. The album doesn’t lose sight of the band’s gift for merging mood and melody, but is a more adventurous and assured record, transcending Matt Lowell’s Mark Hollis influences and crafting captivating dreamy soundscapes and rumbling crescendos worthy of the best art pop.

Craig Finn | A Legacy of Rentals (Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers)

One of Craig Finn’s trademarks is his talk-sing style of vocals. But here, he leans into the spoken word aspect of his music more than ever. A Legacy of Rentals is another outstanding collaboration with producer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, who served the same role on Finn’s compelling “trilogy” of preceding LPs. The album makes great use of strings and vocals from Cassandra Jenkins to color in Finn’s tales of people struggling, and not quite managing, to stay on the level. Their vocal interplay elevates captivating story songs like “The Year We Fell Behind” and “A Break from the Barrage.” And it’s not to say that this is a tonal downer of an album. “The Amarillo Kid” skitters along on a 1980s drum machine beat; “Birthdays” is downright jaunty, and features saxophone by Stewart Bogie, which enlivens a tale about a guy in a hospital (mental institution?) who might just be getting a visit from a lifelong friend. Every time Finn makes a record, it’s hard not to get the feeling that he’s taken his storycraft to another level. That’s not changed with A Legacy of Rentals. Sure, this is music, and these are songs. But really, they’re short stories being told in front of a full band. It’s a beautiful thing to witness a master at work.

Death Cab for Cutie | Asphalt Meadows (Atlantic)
It’s been, what…15 years since I really loved and connected with a Death Cab for Cutie album. 2007’s Narrow Stairs remains one of my favorites of theirs, but followup Codes and Keys was terminally boring. While Kintsugi and Thank You for Today had their moments, they didn’t feel like they had a compelling reason to exist, either. That’s what makes Asphalt Meadows, the most interesting, and most vital, Death Cab record in ages, such a pleasant surprise. The album was born of an experimental writing process. One band member would start the week with a song, or an idea, and then they would pass it to another member the next day, who could modify it however they wish, and would then pass it along again. At the end of the week, the band reviewed the end result. Not every experiment made it to the album, but the ones that did formed a strong foundation. There are elements here that hearken back to The Photo Album and Transatlanticism, but it’s no retread. Mostly, it sounds like Death Cab, but trying some new things. There’s really nothing wrong with a veteran band striving to push their art forward, while also understanding and embracing the fact that sometimes you’re just going to sound like yourself. Plus, it’s a delight to sink teeth into an album full of some of the best lyrics Ben Gibbard has written in quite some time. Few have a way with a turn of phrase, or a surprising metaphor, quite like he does. Many of the lyrics seem to be looking back at the yearning years that Gibbard’s most celebrated albums seemed to live in real time (“Rand McNally”; “Wheat Like Waves”), but filtered through the lens of decades of experience. There are also a number of poignant and perceptive lyrics about ever quickening passing of time (“Pepper”; “Here to Forever”; “Fragments from the Decade”), as well as keeping your shit together during the pandemic. (“I Miss Strangers”; “I Don’t Know How I Survive”). Asphalt Meadows is tight, well-written, and sounds at once familiar and forward thinking. Jump in if you haven’t exactly been feeling Death Cab lately, but would like to again.

Beach House | Once Twice Melody (Sub Pop)

Beach House really never stray too far from the luxurious dream pop that they do so well. Most of their albums are iterations on themes, or subtle tweaks of their keen songwriting and expertly constructed production. Once Twice Melody is not only a welcome return after a four-year hiatus, but most significantly, a fascinating new twist on their sound. By leaning into the electronic aspects of their music, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have created “another Beach House album,” but one built on synthesizers and sequencers. It lends the spacious double album the vibe of a deeply pleasant hallucination in the back room of a 1980s indie club.

Elvis Costello & the Imposters | The Boy Named If (EMI/Capitol)

It would be easy to give a cursory listen to The Boy Named If and think of it as merely the latest in a string of craftsmanlike-but-indistinguishable late period Elvis Costello albums. His work in the past 10 years has always been worth a listen, but rarely has that period resulted in one that deserves a star of distinction in his long, deep discography. At his best, Costello is a knife brandishing a knife. Here, he takes his songwriting acumen to the whetstone, and the result is the most rollicking and sharp-witted he’s sounded in a while. More than anything, Costello sounds as if he’s having a bloody riot playing these songs; that enthusiasm is infectious as the album is memorable.

The Beths | Expert in a Dying Field (Carpark)

The Beths’ stupendous 2018 debut album was a buzzy slice of endearingly neurotic power pop. However, 2020’s followup Jump Rope Gazers explored a more low-key sound, one that meant well but ultimately didn’t connect. Thankfully, their latest Expert in a Dying Field, is a return to form, boasting a focused set of Elizabeth Stokes’ songs by and for overthinkers, taut melodies, and more of the band’s enchanting harmonies. Sometimes the most gratifying listen is one that does what it says on the tin.

Indigo Sparke | Hysteria (Sacred Bones)

Produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, Indigo Sparke’s Hysteria is surprisingly free of the trappings of his style. Instead of draping everything with looping guitars and slowly percolating programmed beats, here Dessner simply helps construct a gossamer strewn space where Sparke’s expressive voice, and nimble, affecting melodies, breathe deeply and freely. Look no further than the thrumming, gothic “Pressure in My Chest,” or the magnificently soaring, bittersweet title track. The power in Sparke’s music comes directly from her voice and her acoustic guitar. Like a sturdy Victorian brick home, her impressive, emotionally intelligent songs have good bones. The accompaniment is merely tasteful furnishing.

Plains | I Walked With You a Ways (Anti-)

Plains, the new project from Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and Texan singer-songwriter Jess Williamson, taps into the platonic ideal of 1990s country music. That’s not to say this sounds like Garth, or Shania, or Trisha Yearwood, or any one artist in particular. But it radiates a folksy, at-peace energy that sounds like the musical equivalent of trading in your smartphone for a flip phone. I Walked With You a Ways is country-pop that isn’t pop country, a record that recalls the decade when the Internet was ascendant, but not omnipresent, and when being online was optional. By stepping outside of our notification drenched present for a bit, Crutchfield and Williamson have created an out-of-time haven from it.

Weyes Blood | And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow (Sub Pop)

Natalie Mering has carved out a niche in the indie landscape with her mix of psychedelic folk, chamber pop, and soft rock. Like its predecessor Titanic Rising, And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow is permeated with a sense of foreboding, disconnection and impending cataclysm. She wraps her Karen Carpenter croon around songs that search for connection in an always online, yet ultimately disconnected, era. It’s a sweeping album that yearns to be understood. Mering’s true gift as a songwriter is being perceptive enough to recognize the warning signs going off around her and all of us, but empathetic enough to remain hopeful. With In the Darkness, she makes a powerful statement by recognizing that realism and cautious optimism aren’t mutually exclusive.

Glen Phillips | There Is So Much Here (Compass)

“Glen Phillips’ music is inherently bittersweet. As the voice of 1990s avatars of sincerity and thoughtful contemplation Toad the Wet Sprocket and in a steady, underappreciated solo career, he has honed the art of holding sadness while seeking joy. The sorrowful songs are laced with hope, while the jubilant songs always carry a small sigh. Phillips’ previous solo album, 2016’s Swallowed by the New, was informed by divorce. It was blue, but clung to the possibility of renewal. It was a walk at dusk in December, a golden sunset filtered through bare branches. His new record There Is So Much Here is infused with new love and regeneration. There’s little musical reinvention here. Glen Phillips albums don’t dabble in electronics or take a detour into industrial rock. Instead, the focus is on mood, emotion, deep thoughts, and subtle iterations of his signature driving, yet tender, folk rock. His honeyed, familiar voice springs forth from a comfortable bed of music, from which he invites the listener to join him on a voyage of inner exploration.” Check out my full-length review at: http://theartsstl.com/glen-phillips-there-is-so-much-here-compass/

Danger Mouse & Black Thought | Cheat Codes (BMG)

The Roots’ Black Thought and producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse team up for this soulful, swirling set of psychedelic pop and 1970s soul-tinged rap. Even better, clocking in at a lean, mean 38 minutes, it’s the rare hip-hop album that prioritizes quality control.

Bret McKenzie | Songs Without Jokes (Sub Pop)

What really elevated Flight of the Conchords was the way their joke songs were also always compelling pieces of songcraft, written by people who were obviously keen students of pop music history. That songwriting acumen translates very well to this, Bret McKenzie’s first solo album. That’s not to say this isn’t humorous music. There is a wry, winking vein to all of these tunes. I think subconsciously, McKenzie is always half writing for a self-aware Muppet. Lyrically, and musically, he often makes you think of Randy Newman‘s gift for using humor and irony in serious songs that don’t take themselves too seriously. Songs without Jokes evokes, but never mimics, the golden age of soft yet acerbic 1970s LA singer/songwriters. It’s well worth your time, especially if you were, like I was, always hoping he would get around to doing something like this. | Mike Rengel

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