Staffer’s Choice: Top 5 Albums of 2022

Now that Santa has visited all the good guys, gals, & nonbinary pals, and the Christmas ham has been torn to shreds, it’s high time we reflect on the year in music. And what better time to cap off 2022 with a year-end list than the liminal space between Christmas and New Year’s? There is simply too much quantity and quality to parse through, so before we rundown the list proper, here are this year’s Honorable Mentions:

2022 Honorable Mentions:

  • Mitski – “Laurel Hell”
  • Bloc Party – “Alpha Games”
  • Arcade Fire – “WE”
  • Dry Cleaning – “Stumpwork”
  • Interpol – “The Other Side of Make-Believe”
  • Florence + The Machine – “Dance Fever”
  • Blood Red Shoes – “Ghost Tapes”
  • Foals – “Life is Yours”
  • Arctic Monkeys – “The Car”
  • Young The Giant – “American Bollywood”

Same rules apply as last year, so for those just joining us or need a reminder, here’s a quick disclaimer:

Disclaimer: This is an editorialized Top 5 countdown. All opinions expressed are as they pertain to my particular tastes throughout the year. I listen to what I listen to, so if you don’t see an album featured that you were expecting, chances are either I didn’t listen, or it was simply bumped out of my bracket. But hey, this is my list. You’re more than welcome to tell me yours down in the comments. The albums featured are here for a combination of their artistic merit, as well as my own personal subjective enjoyment. Objectivity is a myth, and we’re here to have fun. And with that out of the way, why not dive right in, shall we?

K.O. & co. are back in full force with a more meditative approach than ever.

#5: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Cool It Down”

New York City famously put guitar rock back on the map in the early Aughts with a trio of utterly distinctive bands that would go on to define that revival era. The Big Three consisted of The Strokes, who appealed widely with their slacker chic, Interpol, whose suit-laden malaise aimed for the shoegazers, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a raspy jolt of feminine energy in an otherwise sad-white-boy-dominated genre. Frontwoman Karen O.‘s soaring vocals and Nick Zinner‘s signature guitar flair offered tunes that were both visceral and intimate. With “Cool It Down,” the band’s latest record since 2013’s oft-underappreciated “Mosquito,” K.O. & co. serve up a fifth LP so positively in-gear that it’s hard to fathom that they’ve been away for close to a decade.

Opening track “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” borrows some Perfume Genius production to throw the listener right back into the chaos that has been ensuing in their absence. Somber percussion and mindful, shimmering synths set the stage for what is undoubtedly YYY’s most emotionally-intelligent record yet. “Lovebomb” features a key addition that K.O. wields throughout the tight 32-minute journey of an album – soft, emotive spoken word. “I’ll let the time come/Oh, when hearts fall in love/Oh, let no one see you/Let nothing hold you/Come close, close,” she beckons yearnfully. Follow-up “Wolf” is a feral, snarling lupine cut about feeling lost from your pack. The synth build winds up to a wallop of a climax that will leave you gnawing at easy prey for nourishment. Zinner, Chase, and O’s undeniable synergy is utterly infectious on the pre-chorus of “Fleez,” which may go down as pound-for-pound the most underrated track of the year. It’s got the sharp, angular, youthful leanings of “Show Your Bones”-era YYY’s with all the forethought and know-how of seasoned rock veterans.

“Burning” is above and away the centerpiece that the record is built around, and for good reason. K.O.’s red-hot, razor-witted lyricism sears on the chorus: “Into the sea, out of fire/All that burning,” a fitting, cleansing tagline for a frayed world in the wake of a raging pandemic that has seen such an uptick in communal suffering. K.O. urges us to reflect on our personal pains so that we may become whole as a society again.

On closer “Mars,” O muses on distant figures in the night sky. A warm, maternal sensibility is evoked throughout the brief two-minute runtime, as she converses with her baby boy, Django. “No more shimmering path/Just an orb hanging above/With all its heavenly fire contained in a complete circle/I asked my son what it looked like to him/’Mars,’ he said/With a glint in his eye.” A contemplative sendoff to an airtight 8-cut tracklist, and an argument that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have never felt more rightly profound and world-worn. “Cool It Down” wastes not a second of its runtime on dilly-dallying, and is enriched by its precision as well as its earnestness.

French all-stars Phoenix serve up some of the finest synthpop of the year on “Alpha Zulu.”

#4: Phoenix – “Alpha Zulu”

Versailles-based quartet Phoenix have been at the wheel since their formation in 1995, though arguably they haven’t seen mainstream crossover success until 2009’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” which delivered a double whammy on the single front, providing essential tracks “1901,” and “Lisztomania.” Phoenix has not been content to rest on their laurels, rest assured. Follow-up LP “Bankrupt!” flirted with Eastern sensibilities, with Chinese percussion oozing at the top of “Entertainment.” 2017’s “Ti Amo,” by comparison, is a sun-soaked gelato stroll through the streets of summer. I maintain the assertion that every new Phoenix record encapsulates the magic of walking through a foreign country on your own for the first time.

By this metric, “Alpha Zulu,” their first studio offering in half a decade, feels like a leisurely saunter through the rooms of a European museum. Fitting, given the four piece started recording in 2020 in isolation at the Musée des Arts décoratifs studio in the Louvre Palace. Each track is its own exhibition space, a miniature world bursting with color whose contours can scarcely be contained within the borders around the canvas. The album cover evokes this very experience, drawing from Boticelli’s “Madonna col Bambino mediante otto angeli.” A thrumming synth backbeat kicks off the reveling wherein the title track sees frontman Thomas Mars confronting his faith in times of dire strain (such as the COVID conditions under which this record is owed). Sly references to their biggest hit (“I must’ve died at 51 in 1953”) introduces a self-aware element that is woven throughout the 10 song tracklist. Subsequent single “Tonight” features everyone’s favorite boat shoes-wearing, Oxford Comma-slanderer, none other than Vampire Weekend‘s own Ezra Koenig. The ping-pong interplay between Mars and Koenig’s vocal delivery is an ear-to-ear delight, and quite possibly the most refreshing and addictive collab this year. When both frontmen ring in the post-chorus together, you know you’re in for a good time – “Now I talk to myself and it’s quite surprising.” Different tracks hearken back to previous eras of the band’s discography; “The Only One”‘s disco-infused yearning could easily slot in on the likes of “Bankrupt!”, whereas “After Midnight”‘s bouncy, sleeve-hearted affection would not feel out of place on “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.” “Artefact”‘s self-interrogation, especially during its chorus, may as well be a B-side on “It’s Never Been Like That.”

This playful self-referentiality allows “Alpha Zulu” to feel like a celebration of everything that’s come before, while still adding to the Phoenix mythos. “Winter Solstice,” in particular, is a cold breath of fresh air that sounds distinct to this album alone, with Mars intoning some of his most chilling lyrics in years: “Why open your eyes to go to bed?/Drive straight to the ocean/And see what you won’t find out/Even the righteous beheaded their loved ones.” An otherwise skeletal track instrumentally, the building swell of synths cascade and downpour at the three-minute mark. “All Eyes on Me” is a real rug-cutter, seeing the danciest, smarmiest Mars vocal performance arguably in the entire Phoenix catalog. “My Elixir” exists as a tender breather from the self-aggrandizement, outright asking the audience if they’re ready to go home after a long night of sweaty gallery dancing.

Closer track “Identical” is both featured in the Coppola (Mars’ wife) film “On The Rocks,” and is a tribute to Cassius member Phillipe Zdar, whom produced three prior Phoenix records, and unfortunately passed away in 2019. As the last track Thomas forged under Zdar’s tutelage, the seemingly innocuous tune climbs and climbs, ascending in tandem with its blaring synth klaxon in the background. Is “Alpha Zulu” the very best record the band has put out? It’s gonna be hard to claim the throne from the likes of “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” but this impressive seventh album plays with its own self-tenses whilst building upon its existing canon. It features Phoenix doing what they do best – churning out some of the most refined indie synthpop tracks imaginable.

Ten records strong, and Austin-native Spoon is still holding it down as rock’s upper echelon.

#3: Spoon – ” Lucifer on the Sofa”

What more is there to be said about “Lucifer on the Sofa,” Spoon‘s shimmering tenth studio outing? If you read my review back in February, you’ll know that I posited that it’s a real contender for one of the year’s very best. And that was back in February. I’m unsurprised to find that many other records have given it a run for its money. Frontman and Austin hometowner Britt Daniel continues to stay hungry. Never is he nor his collective ensemble ever ready to simply lean on their back catalog without putting in a proper day’s sweat. I simply haven’t enough fingers to count the amount of times I’ve stated that Spoon is the most consistent rock band of the last three decades. It’s simply awe-inspiring to see that they still haven’t lost even a bit of steam this far into their career.

Be it on the hair-slicked reimagining of Smog‘s “Held,” or on the ever-expansive frontier dirt roads of “Wild,” Britt, Eno, & co. are firing on all cylinders. “The Hardest Cut” offers ZZ Top bar thrills, while “The Devil & Mister Jones” is a sly, sinister, cutthroat fable with shimmering, eardrum-shattering instrumentation. “My Babe” is always-tender, never-saccharine, while “Feels Alright” is self-assured bravado cranked up to 11. “On The Radio,” “Astral Jacket,” “Satellite,” and the eponymous “Lucifer on the Sofa” comprise a four-track run like few other backends of a record have offered all year. All killer, no filler, and a bag of chips. If you want my unadulterated thoughts, check out the aforementioned review. Look, I could honestly gush all day, but when it’s all said and done…it’s Spoon. Would you really expect anything less?

On his fifth studio record, K-Dot treats his verses as therapy sessions.

#2: Kendrick Lamar – “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”

“New flows coming, be patient, brother,” Kung-Fu Kenny cheekily promises the audience on “Family Ties,” featuring cousin Baby Keem. The collab had been the first we had heard from the 14-time Grammy winner since 2017’s triple-platinum “DAMN.” 2021, he ain’t takin’ no prisoners, and 2022 proved the sentiment beyond a shadow of a doubt. Heavy is the crown of unanimous critical acclaim, and on fifth studio record “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” Kendrick comes to grips with his own fame in blockbuster fashion. Before the shadow drop of the album in mid-May, K-Dot teased the upcoming project with “The Heart Part 5,” a soulful neo-funk meditation grappling with the culture of the rap community and its most commonplace pitfalls. “In the land where hurt people hurt more people/F*** callin’ it culture,” he asserts. This cultural temperature check is one of many ticket items he addresses on this latest full-length. “Tell ’em, tell ’em the truth/ Tell ’em, tell ’em, tell’em your-”

Cut short. You see, therapy is the process of confronting yourself until you can no longer hide from the questions you already know the answers to. Emphasis on process. “Mr. Morale” begins that protracted process with an expansive 18-song tracklist. Kendrick sets out to make sense of the culture as he makes sense of himself, his loved ones, his legacy, and his relationship to the world around him. Processing grief is the first task at hand, and “United in Grief”‘s earnest exploration catches the listener up to the last 1,855 days since Kendrick has dropped an album; in that time, he has taken up seeing a therapist, and through his own writing – as well as that of German spiritualist Eckhart Tolle – he has begun on a venture towards spiritual enlightenment. Tolle, famous for his musings on “The Power of Now,” maintains that only through the present moment do you have access to the power of life itself. The now is godly. Focus on the now. “Tell ’em, tell them your -“

But not everybody is ready to confront the present. First, we must unmask – physically and emotionally. “N95” aims to do just that, and despite not receiving the same level of radio play as, say, “Humble,” this is the definitive song of the summer. I can hardly tell you how many thousands of times I’ve played this one track this year alone. It stands as one of Kendrick’s most immediate, but also most profound bangers. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the chorus gives me the illest stank face any song could offer in 2022. “Oh, you worried ’bout a critic? That ain’t protocol.” K-Dot couldn’t truly be asked to give a damn what others have to say about him or his creative process. Follow-up “Worldwide Steppers” places the magnifying glass on legacy and family, particularly whereas his son, Enoch, is concerned, alongside Kendrick’s tumultuous relationship with well-established sweetheart, Whitney, with whom he has two children. Whitney is a guiding force throughout the tracks, urging Kendrick to engage with the truth of his generational trauma (which he addresses both on “Father Time” and “Mother I Sober”). Her soft reassurance lands with grace and elegance, as she singsongedly whispers “You did it, I’m proud of you/You broke a generational curse.” One can’t reach that emotional catharsis before arriving at the eruptive climax of “We Cry Together.” Taylour Paige – playing the part of Whitney during a time before Kenny’s therapeutic process – turns in the most affecting, poetic vocal performance of the year. And amidst all the spiraling chaos: “Stop tap-dancing around the conversation.”

Snap back into the therapist office. “Auntie Diaries” is made of the kind of stock you often will not find on most rap records – a subversive interrogation about gender and gender identity, and how we provide or fail to provide the support our loved ones need most. Cousin Keem receives the explicit invite on “Savior” – one of the most vital parts along this excursion of self-actualization – where Kendrick concludes that he alone can not be rap’s salvation; he can only be Kendrick. As he stipulates on “Mirror,” “I choose me, I’m sorry.” By the end of its 75 minute runtime, Kendrick has processed grief, fame, trauma, tragedy, family dysfunction, and has arrived at a point of genuine radical self-acceptance.

Brisbane-native Last Dinosaurs pay their respects to Mexico while musing on the current state of the world.

#1: Last Dinosaurs – “From Mexico With Love”

Remember my earlier disclaimer? Were I aiming for objectivity, “Mr. Morale” would’ve easily snagged the top spot of the year. That being said, the only thing truly holding it back is its lengthy 18-song tracklist. It’s the same as watching an immaculate, artful film that just so happens to be three hours long. The art merit is there, but you may not always be up to towering task of always giving it 100% of your attention when consuming it casually. Some pieces of art simply demand a certain level of commitment. On the other end of the spectrum, the breeziest boys around – none other than Brisbane’s signature trio – Last Dinosaurs, knock it out of the park on their faultless fourth album, “From Mexico With Love.” Spanning a perfectly reasonable ten tracks, this is the sharpest, most engaging, most addictive listen of the year for me, zero contest.

Despite this record dropping only in November, I have spent more time with it than many other of the top spot contenders combined. A massive percentage of that time has been spent listening to opener “Hanson Ghost” ad infinitum. Yeah, this is it. This is my favorite song of the year, undisputed. As unavoidable as it is to make mention of the COVID of it all, this primer drops us in media res into the very place lyricist and lead guitarist Lachlan Caskey spent the duration of his 2021, trapped with his demons, whilst tasked with recording remotely with brother Sean Caskey, and bassist Michael J. Sloane. “Point in time/It feels crazy to describe/When all the stars align/But the world just feels beautiful/Moving fast, but we’re slowing down at last/I feel good in my skin again,” Lach sings on the opening lyrics. This first verse alone establishes the circumstances of his inability to make it back home to Brisbane from Mexico City where he had been suitably trapped for months on end.

The very experience is a microcosm for the pandemic itself, wherein we were forced for the first time in a long time to really slow down and reckon with ourselves in a world that often demands a constant velocity. Cathartic guitar passages, a searing bassline, and Lach’s impassioned Spanish (“Cuanto mas debo esperar?”) tie tautly the knot of what is the most gratifying three and half minutes of music I’ve experienced in 2022. And mind you, these are the album’s opening moments. It feels good to feel good in your skin again.

Sophomore single “Look Back” is an aptly-titled retrospective on a life and love that have gone sideways, filtered through an intoxicating autotune delivery that avoids sounding overtly unnatural. With Sean at the helm of previous Dinos efforts, 2018’s “Yumeno Garden” marked a shift in the production dynamics of the band, outright drawing from Lachlan’s side project, the considerably Dostoevsky-inspired Notes From Under Ground (“Shallow Boy” and “Italo Disco” being direct reworks from under this moniker). Ever since, the mainline Dinos canon has noticeably been more Lach-driven, and has arrived at numerous creative risks and successes as a result. The younger Caskey’s inspired ambition pays countless dividends on this record, as he spearheaded the recording process in isolation while on-site in Mexico.

But it’s not all the doom and gloom of solipsism, of course. As mentioned on “Hanson Ghost,” in spite of it all, the world just seems beautiful. “CDMX” is a ripping ode to Ciudad de Mexico and its vast culture. Its lush environs, agreeable prices, and welcoming people provide a feeling that just can’t be captured elsewhere. “Put Up With The Weather!” is a no-frills seasonal crooner that features some of Lach’s most infectious vocals. The hook is bound to captivate many a crowd during the touring for this record. On “Auto-Sabotage,” Lachlan’s decidedly Scottish vocal affectation guides a prologue that lives rent-free in my head at all hours: “I feel sometimes I look at me-self in the mirror/And I think ‘What the hell are you doing, man? What the hell are you doing?’ It’s like there’s something inside of me/And I’m afraid it’s a part of me/I can’t even…rest.” The track is a self-assessment of his own darkest tendencies, be it his daily vices, or the way he practices negative self-talk. The chorus is spiritual feng shui for the self-disaffected: “I keep on asking myself why/Self-sabotaging all the time.”

With the remaining cuts, the Dinos delve deeper into the psyche of a man alone. “Note to Self” skirts along a grooving finger-picked bassline to a series of reflexive lyrics that literalize a mental echo chamber of inward bias: “I’m gonna shake you up/Make you look bad, lazy and sad/No, I don’t give a f***/I’m telling you now/No one’s gonna come and save you.” Self-doubt has never sounded so smooth. At the ten-second mark on “Can’t Afford Psychoanalysis,” the elevator dings and opens at the floor of Lachlan’s psychiatrist, wherein he regales the expert on a past discussion with an old friend. Alas, it’s all a farce. A mental replaying of the events at large, for we know the title of the song, after all. However, after evaluating the prospect of doing it all on his own, a solemn epiphany arrives as the drum fill ascends: “Consolation, self-hatred/Oh, don’t we try to do it all on our own/I can take it/I might invite psychoanalysis, though.”

“The Hating” samples a number of Australia-centric media outlets, featuring local residents airing their grievances about the government and the proliferation of xenophobic neighbors. While Australia touts its generally liberal, democratic ideology, in practice, Caskey addresses the susceptibility of its people to buy into agendas that thrive on hate and division. The chorus embodies this very notion: “Yes, I hate you, yes, I hate you/ Get away from me, stay away from you/Such a spoiled child, I see through it now/No one wants you on the tram to play.” Lach warns outright about the price society has to pay for blind patriotism, and how it exists hand-in-hand with virulent prejudice. This far into the tracklist, it’s easy to forget that “Collect Call” was released as the first single leading up to this album. So when I tell you that being reminded of it and hearing it in full context at the backend of this record saw me beaming with an ear-to-ear grin, it’s because I think the ordering of songs is absolutely genius in how it throws you off its scent. Surely, a pure, unfiltered Dinos track of this quality would be frontloaded off-rip? Nope. The album benefits from doling out its best surprises at a measured pace, so as to keep the listener on their toes. And man, I can personally attest to the fact that this one goes HARD live. A real barn burner. But it’s not over yet, folks. Closing us out is arguably their best bookend track, “When I See Pigs Fly.” Invoking Greek tragedy, Lachlan likens the task of making it through our modern landscape as a Sisyphean task.

Pound for pound, “From Mexico With Love” is a testament to Last Dinosaurs’ ceaseless ability to draw inspiration from the world around them, injecting pathos and beauty into a world ravaged by daily conflict. With these 10 tracks, the ol’ Brisbane lads undeniably secure my top pick for the best album of 2022.

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