We’re going to take a little break from our regular stream of weirdly introspective memoirs and utter nonsense to recognize the best albums from 2022. Are these albums definitively the best of the year? Yes. Because I write on the internet, where opinions are facts.
Albums are presented in alphabetical order.
11:11 by Pinegrove
At a very difficult time, I leaned on the music of Pinegrove, specifically 2020’s Marigold and the title track of 2018’s Skylight. I never meant for that to happen—I had been a minor fan at best, prior to falling in love with Marigold in the spring of 2020—but happen it did. (Here’s the necessary disclaimer that this is a difficult band to discuss and not everyone will have the desire or capacity to love their work the way that I have come to over the last few years.) So when 11:11 was released early this year, I wanted a perfect album, something that would change me and give me a new lens through which to see the world. 11:11 is not that album, at least not for me, not right now. That was disappointing at first, but in the back half of the year—after being impressed by Pinegrove in concert—I’ve come to find affection for this album on its terms. There are good songs here, songs worth appreciating. “Habitat” turns from punchy to serene, “Cyclone” is sharp and tight, and the outro of “Iodine” is one of the band’s best passages. I was slow to warm to 11:11, but that was my fault, not the album’s.
Apocalypse Whenever by Bad Suns
You could copy much of the 11:11 entry for Apocalypse Whenever. Having been totally blown away by 2019’s Mystic Truth, one of the best albums of the last decade, I have become completely enamored with all things Bad Suns. I wanted Apocalypse Whenever to melt my brain, but instead, it’s merely a very good pop album. It carries on the heavily ‘80s vibe that was on display in last year’s Peachy EP, largely because all of the tracks from Peachy are included on Apocalypse Whenever, and they tend to be the album’s strongest. I wouldn’t introduce anyone to Bad Suns via Apocalypse Whenever, because this is a band that’s written some of the very best pop-rock albums of all time and Apocalypse Whenever doesn’t quite rise to those heights. But if you’re a fan of the band already, or merely looking for a taste of something greater, then you should enjoy your time with Apocalypse Whenever.
Chordata Bytes I & Chordata Bytes II by Imogen Heap & Dan O’Neill
Imogen Heap has had a fascinating career. She was a burgeoning artist when Zach Braff gave her a blast of fame by featuring Frou Frou’s “Let Go” in Garden State, then she released a killer pop album that featured one of the most unlikely hit singles imaginable: “Hide and Seek” is wonderful and so weird that to see it be sampled endlessly and even lie at the center of a bizarre Saturday Night Live skit seems impossible. Somehow Heap’s career only got weirder. She invented a new instrument, soundtracked the divisive Harry Potter theater production, and released a wildly underrated single in the midst of a pandemic. Her latest act sees her taking a bunch of nature sounds recorded by Dan O’Neill and turning them into a sort of Lo-fi Beats to Study To that literally fuses nature into electronica. These albums were only released over the last few weeks and I can’t be certain that they’ll have staying power, but since they’ve arrived, they’ve been a regular part of my listening habits and, considering Heap’s prior successes—and how much of a banger “Kākāpō” is—that doesn’t seem like a mistake.
Dream Feeling by Moxy the Band
I have to fight the urge to think of Dream Feeling as “that ‘80s album” even though there’s no denying that many of the building blocks that were used to make Moxy the Band’s debut were born of an ‘80s aesthetic—the synths, the huge vocals, and the band’s entire visual presentation smack of cocaine and Reaganomics. But there’s a Ship of Theseus thing going on here, because a lot of those ostensibly ‘80s elements have been tweaked and repurposed with a decidedly contemporary sensibility. Or maybe it’s that Moxy the Band has broken down genre tropes into modular tools and then constructed an entirely new thing out of them. So yes, Dream Feeling hints at the ‘80s, but rather than feeling at home, every song from this album would have felt revolutionary in that decade, a glimpse not of the present but of an increasingly genre-less future. There’s also something exceedingly charming about this group, from Amber DeLaRosa’s combination of powerful vocals and vulnerable lyrics, to Michael Franzino’s crafty songwriting, to Dryw Owens’ sparkling production—there just seems to be so much passion here, which is visible in the band’s excellent music videos. Being a great ‘80s revival album would have been enough, but Dream Feeling is much more.
five seconds flat by Lizzy McAlpine
Spotify tells me that I listened to almost 107k minutes of music this year, and a huge amount of that was spent with five seconds flat. I get obsessive about music and this album was the obsession that dominated my 2022. I fell in love with the haunted march of “doomsday” first, but “called you again” might be the single best song of the year and “orange show speedway” brilliantly evokes nostalgia for a time I never lived and the bridge of “all my ghosts” is simply perfect and “what a shame” is sneakily beautiful and I just want this album to repeat and repeat and repeat again and again and again. (And I’ll keep watching the album’s excellent sister film over and over and over.) Rather than go on and on and on, I’ll say this: I didn’t rank this list, but five seconds flat is first. This was the best album of the year and it wasn’t even close.
Myriad by Oh Hiroshima
Oh Hiroshima have been making sprawling, epic post-rock for over a decade and if Myriad isn’t their best record in that span, it’s certainly in the running. This album sounds like what would happen if Take Care-era Explosions in the Sky were drafted into a galactic military and told to record songs from the frontline of literal star wars. Myriad is occasionally violent, sometimes ethereal, and always satisfying. It’s a neat combination, if you can pull it off. Oh Hiroshima can.
The Rain Museum by Armor for Sleep
Call them cash grabs, call them creatively bankrupt, or say that it’s simply impossible to recapture past magic—reunion albums rarely add anything of note to a band’s catalog outside of an excuse for one more tour. (With rare exceptions.) But I’m in an odd spot with The Rain Museum: I wasn’t really an Armor for Sleep fan, so as far as I’m concerned, the band has little legacy at risk of being tarnished by a dumpy reunion. So when I heard that Armor for Sleep had reunited before-and-then-during the early phases of the pandemic to record a new album, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations. Except that The Rain Museum is only a reunion album via technicality. In reality, the album was written as a follow-up to What to Do When You Are Dead, the one album in the band’s oeuvre that I enjoyed. And so I’ve spent a good chunk of time with The Rain Museum and, just like What to Do, it’s focused on a concept that is maybe not quite as profound as its authors seem to think, but it’s also full of the kind of solid guitar-rock that seemed to disappear after What to Do and Matchbook Romance’s Monsters and other albums of that ilk fell out of the scene zeitgeist. If you’re into that kind of thing, then you should spin The Rain Museum, or at least standout tracks like the eponymous instrumental opener, finale “Spinning Through Time,” and the punchy “A Teardrop (On the Surface of the Sun).”
The Salt Water Well by OWEL
Over the years, I have written an awful lot about OWEL and deservedly so; they’re an excellent band! But given all that history, we won’t get too deep into their lore here. Suffice to say that The Salt Water Well is another memorable installment from one of the best acts of the last decade. This latest EP sands off some of the visceral emotional intensity that marked prior OWEL releases, leading to a more muted, chill approach. It’s still OWEL, of course, but the swells and crescendos that were huge on prior releases are only big here, the aching pains replaced with tender acceptance. The Salt Water Well is a different flavor of OWEL, but it’s OWEL all the same and that’s always a good thing. (And the band’s live performance remains excellent, as evidenced by Live from the Old Franklin Schoolhouse, which, if you enjoy OWEL at all, you should absolutely watch.)
Time Being by Tree River
(Full disclosure: Several years ago, Tree River hired me to write some materials for their Garden EP.)
All of Time Being is great, but album-opener “Journey Proud” is unquestionably one of my favorite songs of the year. From the moment it starts, it’s got this propulsive momentum that drives forward and forward and forward, until the bridge hits and the song pulls you with it in a controlled fall down an unbelievably catchy flight of math-rock stairs. Past that, “Laughing With” has hooks the size of scimitars, “Little Ripper” is delightfully pugilistic, and “Crossroading” features a killer appearance from scene-hero Max Bemis and is beloved by actual rock star Matty Healy. My reviews rarely get to be this simple but Tree River has earned it: Time Being is really fucking good. You should listen to it.
Voyeurist by Underoath
I shouldn’t be recommending Voyeurist. Not because it’s not an album worth listening to but rather because I don’t know if it is or not. My scene bona fides are light on screamo; the last scream-heavy album that I really enjoyed was … Underoath’s Define the Great Line, which was released back at the dawn of time in 2006. I was never big into hardcore or screamo and only spent time on the periphery of those genres, even mostly ignoring the last handful of releases from Underoath, likely my favorite band in the space. So when Voyeurist came out, I didn’t much care. Until one day, looking for something new, I gave it a spin and, to my great surprise, really enjoyed it. I’ve been informed by others who know better that this isn’t a particularly strong album for those who are invested in the genre. And I believe that! But I haven’t made that investment, and maybe for that reason I’ve quite liked the time I’ve spent with Voyeurist this year. For me, it’s heavy and massive and violent, and sometimes, rarely, I’m looking for those things. For one critic, at least, Voyeurist delivers.
This post, with footnotes, originally appeared in the Songs & Stories newsletter. Be a friend and sign up here.