Saturday, December 24, 2022

Tony's Top Five* Albums of the Year 2022

I probably consumed more music (and podcasts) this year than any other year in my life. Go figure, most of that time was spent listening to the same handful of artists. Lots of exciting new music came out this year, but unlike 2020 and even 2021 to a lesser extent, I was all in on my favorites taking a break from the road to discovery. For this list, I tried to work a little behind-the-scenes algebra for how much I enjoyed as a pure reaction vs how much I actually listened to these albums vs that intangible. But, if you're reading this, you've already read like a month of year-end music writing from me. You know the deal. Here's my top five* albums of 2022:

5. Reset - Panda Bear & Sonic Boom

A Panda Bear release is always something to celebrate, and in a year where Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox was collaborating with artists on hit after hit (after hit) this year, it seemed inevitable that he and longtime collaborator Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember would try to reignite the long-burning creative flame that's been burning between the two since Tomboy. Kember, "PeteK" on the Animal Collective message boards, had been teasing some exciting work between he and Lennox, but (at least for me) nothing on the scale of a full album - maybe a few loosies? maybe some live tracks Panda Bear had debuted in 2021 getting a studio production? 

Instead, thank god, we're treated to Reset. The album is a pandemic-post-modern rehashing of the storied production of The Postal Service's Give Up: Kember would send Lennox loops built off of samples from golden era pop songs, some obscure, some well-known (there's an Everly Brothers sample on here I cannot imagine Domino enjoyed shelling out for), and Lennox would add vocals and send them back. In interviews (and all over the Collected Animals forum) PeteK would talk about how spending time with these sunny songs was his way of coping with the isolation of quarantine by connecting with the past, with joyful sounds, and adding to them. Panda Bear's voice has always been my favorite instrument in Animal Collective, so I am the perfect listener for the theory that adding Noah Lennox's harmonizing to literally any sound will turn that frown upside down!

And it does. Reset is an absolute joy to listen to. Despite it, at a conceptual and material level, being a small affair, packs a wallop of an emotional punch. This is evident in footage from the few live shows the pair has done over in Europe: just Panda Bear and Sonic Boom, a huge projector blasting psychedelic visuals behind them, and their samplers. The duo trade vocals track for track (Lennox no stranger to trading vocal duties, Reset rarely features both voices on one track though, favoring "Pete songs" and "Noah songs") Boom's low near-growl on "Go On" or Lennox's choir-boy warble in the sublime "In My Body" makes the 9-song album go fast. Almost too fast.

In November, the Reset Songbook Edition was released with instrumentals of all the tracks which adds some depth to the record, though as a Panda Bear purist, those tracks only get me so far. The album itself came in the dog-days of summer, while I was out of town, and while a few of the songs - as well as many playlists of sample sources, demos, and cutting room floors teasers were traded among the Collected Animals forums, the full release (especially) at the onset of an early-August road trip, came as advertised - a sonic rest, a cleanse, a trippy little escape. 

Standout track: "Danger"
Most joyous and unexpected mariachi banger: "Livin' in the After"

4. Nothing Special - Will Sheff

I open with an image of the album cover of the former Okkervil River front man's solo album because it is, to me, essential for understanding why this album is so good. Will Sheff is an indie rock lifer, and following Okkervil River's many lineup and genre permeations closely enough, it became more and more clear he wanted to be freed of the moniker and the expectations that following up 2005's Black Sheep Boy or my personal favorite, 2008's The Stand In's, became a burden. Shit, the opening track of the "band's" penultimate album (2016's Away) the opening track is called "Okkervil River R.I.P.". And to be sure, the later Okkervil River albums were not very good; I remember selling my vinyl copies during The Great Vinyl Purge of 2020 and the buyer at Dearborn Music saying, "breaking up with Okkervil River I see" and to my credit, years later, so has its creative director.

Another story, before I talk about the album. We drove out to Washington D.C. for Thanksgiving and our route took us straight through Maryland, which, I was delighted to see, is a ton of ancient and rolling hills, mountains, trees, and geographic diversity that my beloved home state of Ohio does very much not have. It was so obvious that while my wife and dogs snoozed in the back that Nothing Special was the right album for several hours of that drive. When we got to my brother's house, his wife asked how the drive was and I said "I had no idea how beautiful Maryland was."

We can debate whether or not that's true or if I was just seeing stars after the long, long drive, but one thing I am certain of: Will Sheff's first album under his own name (I'm loath to use the phrase 'solo album,' he was such a commanding force of the revolving door at Okkervil River) is a pastoral masterpiece of music. I had hesitated to dive into it, having been burned by previous Okkervil albums, but man, oh man. In the title track, Sheff sings:

there was treasure we'd claw our way to
and we'd know it by the gleam
we had seen inside some dream
that was beamed through our boyhood bedrooms
when we were nothing special

It seems like obvious praise to heap on an album called what this album is called, but man does it gleam; it is [pause for effect] something special. Despite being a creative writer, I'm not much of a lyrics guy; I never sit down to read the words to songs and liner notes, but Nothing Special is as much a collection of poetry as it is songs. "Like the Last Time" doubles as a transcendental poem ("in the middle of a stream / swimming everyday water fall / on the sunlit trampoline / watching clouds rise in the city fall / how the final light of sunset found you as it went down" and an affective rock song, a tendency Sheff is unafraid to pepper the album with, though for all its mid-sized venue pathology, Nothing Special trends towards quite but never boring. This was the song that fully sold me on the creative vision of the album.

"I feel the world's weight on my tongue," mournfully goes "Holy Man," "I say a song is anything that's sung." Man. I say all this to say Will Sheff can take you around a mountain pass and back in your bedroom just as well as above the chugging motor of a Nissan Rogue literally going around mountain passes. I promise this isn't meant to be damning with faint praise: the thrill of Nothing Special are how clam, how mellow, how simple its aims are. Nothing Special isn't the destination: it is the journey. It will take you to the destination. 

Standout track: "Like the Last Time"
Song that was obviously a 2008-era Okkervil River song which explains why I like it so much: "Estrangement Zone" (sneaky little guitar solo in there).

3. VAXIS Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind - Coheed & Cambria

I've written a little bit about this album already, so for the sake of brevity, I'll remind folks that Coheed & Cambria is a concept band, whose recent run of records takes place in the same universe as The Amory Wars (albums Second Stage Turbine Blade through No World For Tomorrow, prequels The Afterman double-album and Year of the Black Rainbow) and is part of the VAXIS pentalogy. Act 1, The Unheavenly Creatures (2017) introduces us to Nia & Nostrand who the parents of Vaxis, whose troubled early life is the narrative subject of A Window of the Waking Mind. This means: in the year and a half leading up to this album's release, Coheed & Cambria were putting out songs about fatherhood, child rearing, and an against-the-odds narrative about a mother and father who would do anything including go fight a fascist space army to take care of and better understand their little one. I know, I know, I said I'd be brief, but you gotta understand that while the album is good, it was specifically designed in a lab to be one of my favorite releases of 2022. And sure enough, it is.

Though, Act 2 did not come without its bumps. Singles began debuting nearly a full year before the release. Then album release was delayed. Then a very low quality leak misrepresented the nuance of several genre-experimenting tracks (like "Blood" or "A Disappearing Act") spoiled the fun. The deluxe edition (that comes with the illustrated novella continuing Nia & Nostrand's tale) got tied up in supply chain inflation and was expensive and took forever to arrive. Ugliness among collectors fighting over vinyl variants drifted Coheed closer to crass materialism and away from good ass music, but, once the album was in hands and ears, that was all just noise because ... in addition to all this ancillary shit ...

Coheed & Cambria is an incredible guitar-rock band. They make incredible guitar rock, that despite my own insistence, is not made in a lab just for me. In the multipart epic closing track "A Window of the Waking Mind" when lead singer Claudio Sanchez sings in the voice of Nos to his son Vaxis: "our pride and joy are you there? / are you in there, safe and sound? / tell us what you need, so we can help you / we don't know what to do / we don't know what to do" he isn't specifically the moments of insecurity I was feeling during Ben's first year about taking care of my little dude. And yet...

And see, this is what I mean about Coheed & Cambria, a band I once foolishly relegated to 'guilty pleasure' I am now mapping major moments of my life into the batshit crazy fiction their albums weave together across albums and concerts and visualizers and novels and comic books. That's the power of music. But another power of music is a good fucking guitar solo, and in moments like "Shoulders" or "Beautiful Losers" A Window of the Waking Mind has plenty of those, too.

If you like progressive or alternative rock, there's really no reason to not be into Coheed & Cambria. Same deal if you like pop rock. They've refined their craft not only as an album band, but have become an elite live band. Something I forgot when I was being a hater of the May-leak edition of this album was that Claudio, Travis Stever (of L.S. Dune's fame!), Zack Cooper, and Josh Eppard are the best lineup of any touring band out there. Don't listen to me. Don't listen to Coheed & Cambria! Just go be in the crowd of initiated the next time they tour your town. 

I'll be there.

Standout track: "Love Murder One"
Song that could somehow fit on any of the 9 other albums Coheed has released or be the name of an old Star Wars EU book: "The Ladders of Supremacy" 

2. Entering Heaven Alive / Fear of the Dawn - Jack White

I remember the first day I listened to Fear of the Dawn (read my live tweet here), I remember the first time I heard lead single and album opener "Taking Me Back" - it was a smoking hot September day and perfect for a belligerently hot rock song. I luckily had brought headphones to University of Detroit Mercy's campus that day, so I listened to it - probably a dozen times - very loudly without disturbing my neighbors. The b-side, "Taking Me Back (Gently)" highlighted the songwriting chops White's always had, though sometimes that gets lost in the guitar virtuosity. I wondered with the hard/soft jam pairing meant for what Jack White's next album (yes, singular tense - a quaint time!). I even, sort of correctly, predicted a double-album hybrid with hard and soft versions of all the songs. Then, on November 7th, my son was born. Then, on November 11th, two new Jack White albums were announced for the coming year. 

It is impossible to not tie these releases to my own life: "Taking Me Back" is the beginning of my one-year visiting instructor position at Detroit Mercy, the album announcement coincided with the week we brought Ben home from the hospital, the tour began in Detroit and accounts for the last two shows I saw in Michigan before moving, Fear of the Dawn, arriving several days in the mail to me early, unofficially came out on my wife's birthday, listening to the previous night's Supply Chain Issues Tour show was a daily ritual when I was home with the baby and dogs, Entering Heaven Alive came out right after we moved to Ohio, and the soft acoustic songs on that record made for nice driving music with Ben strapped in his carseat on nights he couldn't quite fall asleep in his crib. It isn't to say these albums are spectacular on their own merit - they are - but they are also spectacularly tied to the moments of 2021 and 2022 they were born of.

But the albums themselves make good on the much-discussed process White described in his most candid and generous press cycle yet: they were written mostly at the same time, the busybody unable to slow down during the pandemic; White imagined a double-album (I was right!) but realized the two distinct sonic pallets might more interestingly gravitate to their sonic poles; also it would be hard enough to meet the pressing demands of one Jack White album (and its many, many, many variants) let alone two, despite owning his own pressing plant White would cheekily joke about more than once. Fear of the Dawn is a mean 40 minute capital-R rock album. Like Boarding House Reach before it, songs play with genre and technique: "Eosophobia" sounds like Rush plugged into a car battery; "Into The Twilight" is a near-instrumental with glitchy tendencies that echo "Get Into the Mine Shaft". But like Lazaretto, too, White plays with balladry: "Shedding My Velvet" and "The White Raven" are sensual rock storytelling songs. But of course, the guy that wrote the the guitar parts on Elephant can't help shred. The title track, "What's the Trick?", and "That Was Then, This is Now" offer what long-listening Jack White fans came to hear.

Entering Heaven Alive, on the other hand, is somehow exactly what White teased it would be in the near-four months between the two releases and completely unexpected. Sure, it is most akin to Blunderbus's country-leaning tendencies (think: "Love Interruption", a staple on this tour, or "Hypocritical Kiss" which he's maybe played twice, and "Weep Themselves to Sleep" which he has not played since 2015) but the closet analogue in the Jack White universe is The White Stripes' audacious Get Behind Me Satan, both in terms of soundscapes (the marimba in "The Nurse" is not unlike the piano work on "Help Me Along") and brazen disregard for genre.

"Love is Selfish" as a lead single was a good predictor for "All Along the Way" and "If I Die Tomorrow" which are two of the best and prettiest songs White has ever written. There's downright kookiness, like the silly and sweet "Queen of the Bees" or "A Madman From Manhattan", there's the funky and fuzzy "I've Got You Surrounded (With my Love)" that sounds like a rhythm and blues standard ... plugged into a car battery.

Instead of coming up with a metaphor for all twelve tracks on the album, maybe it is sufficient to say the album is very good. They are strange, but in an interesting way (or interesting in a strange way?). Another talking point White came back to this spring was how the second album would, inevitably, catch less fanfare, a self-described acoustic slow album, at that. It is unfair to top-of-his career songwriting on Enter Heaven Alive that I think White is correct. How do you strum up the same excitement as the sub-two-minute "Fear of the Dawn" with the incredible "A Tree on Fire From Within"?

At this point White is a touring musician. He only really needs to release new music as an occasion to tour, and my sense is if Jack White toured 15 cities every other year he'd sell out those venues every time with our without the excitement of new music. For a workhorse like him, I think that's a gift. He's never been one to compromise creatively, but the legacy-act status means two things: (1) he should probably play "Seven Nation Army" every night and (2) he can release whatever kind of music he wants.

Is one better than the other? Fear of the Dawn is the Jack White album you would have expected in 2022. Entering Heaven Alive is the album Jack White wanted to release in 2022. Luckily for us, we don't have to choose.

Standout tracks: "Taking Me Back" / "Taking Me Back (Gently)"
FOTD Track that I saw the world premiere of the music video following social media breadcrumbs to TMR Cass Corridor: "Fear of the Dawn"
EHA Track to make you mostly likely suffer from incredible Catholic guilt: "If I Die Tomorrow"

Note: five was too neat of a number to pass up, but all things being equal I liked Entering Heaven Alive more than Fear of the Dawn and probably would put Vaxis 2 between the Jack White albums, but as discussed in a previous post, my Jack White albums of the year were recording in a studio.

1. Time Skiffs - Animal Collective

This is another album on this list I wrote a lot about (twice!). Here's the deal with Time Skiffs: it is really, really, really good. It gets all the stuff Animal Collective does really well, and puts it all into a cohesive and highly rewarding single listen. Naturally, I have listened to Time Skiffs a lot more than once.

I think I've ran out of interesting things to say about this album, having been dreaming of it since 2019. When it finally landed, it met - and surpassed - the long-brewing expectations placed upon it. What more can you say about a piece of music than that?

Time Skiffs: album of the year 2019, also 2020, also 2021, and finally, the actual year these songs got a studio release not spotty live bootlegs: 2022.

20+ minute jam Animal Collective has been workshopping since early 2018 that is still different and surprising and amazing every time they play it:

That's it folks, see you next year!

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