MMM Staff Picks: Tom Williams’ Top Ten Favorite Albums of 2022
With the world largely returning to normal this year, 2022 saw no shortage of musical releases – with big hitters like Beyoncé, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar returning (to varying levels of success) and a new generation of talent (like Ethel Cain and London’s Black Country, New Road) making themselves heard. Below I sift through the hundreds of releases from this year to deliver the 10 most essential LPs of 2022.
#10. Ethel Cain – ‘Preacher’s Daughter’
As I said in my review of Preacher’s Daughter, there is surely no album released in 2022 that is “more ambitious” than this hour-and-a-quarter concept album “that traces the journey of a character escaping a fundamentalist home only to meet a gruesome end at the hands of a cannibalistic psychopath.” It’s impossible to neatly sum up the totality of the experience of listening to Preacher’s Daughter – from the pure-pop perfection of “American Teenager” to the acoustic, heart-wrenching “Hard Times” to the masterful Americana epic “Thoroughfare.” But if you want a quick glimpse of Cain’s seemingly endless talents, listen to 3:00 to 3:23 of the closer “Strangers.” It is surely the most impressive musical moment of the year – listen to how building guitars lead to a transcendent, shoegaze-y burst of disparate sounds that all build up to one devastating admission: “With my memory restricted to a polaroid in evidence.”
#9. Amanda Shires – ‘Take It Like A Man’
Amanda Shires makes music that is equally compelling to country purists as it is to the “I usually don’t like country music but…” crowd. On her seventh, and best, album, Shires pens some of the genre’s most powerful odes to love and its demise (no small task, given the genre we’re talking about here). The title track is an absolute powerhouse that only a vocalist as powerful, but controlled, as Shires could pull off. For all its serious subject matter, it displays the sort of subtle wit that sets the Highwomen’s music apart – the refrain of “I know I can take it like a man” changed to “I know I can take it like Amanda” in the outro. “Empty Cups” is perhaps the album’s obvious entry-point; a surprisingly melodic tune given the devastating isolation at its core. The best song, though, is the relatively-understated closer “Everything Has Its Time” – a devastating collage of magical memories (drunken nights, late-night subway rides, dancing under streetlights) contrasted with the current reality of estrangement. Never before has Shires distilled her talents so thoroughly in just one song.
#8. Chat Pile – ‘God’s Country’
No album on this list better captures the terrifying reality of modern-day America than this LP from the politically-charged sludge-metal outfit Chat Pile. The relentless opener “Slaughterhouse” – a meditation on soul-crushing labor and the immoralities of the meat industry – is so dark and so exhausting that I’ve been unable to return to it since I first heard it. After that, the music becomes easier to swallow, but really only ever-so-slightly. “Why” is dominated by one-word repetitions of its titular phrase, delivered in a feral scream, as lead singer Raygun Busch considers the injustices of homelessness. The highlight is the 9-minute closer “Grimace_smoking_weed.jpeg” – a terrifying, perfect encapsulation of the depths of paranoia. Not for the faint of heart.
#7. Rosalía – ‘MOTOMAMI’
I can’t help but feel unqualified to speak on Rosalía’s MOTOMAMI – as a non-Spanish speaker, my understanding of its lyrics is limited to what shoddy English translations I’ve been able to find online, and I’m certainly not qualified to speak on the hotly contested allegations of cultural appropriation that have dogged Rosalía since her 2010s-breakthrough. What is undeniable, however, is how great the LP sounds – with its bizarre, but somehow, the reliably successful meshing of influences. Not since Fetch The Bolt Cutters have I heard an album so decidedly singular. MOTOMAMI, then, is the sort of futuristic, mind-boggling album that is capable of reminding me of what first attracted me to reviewing music.
#6. Soccer Mommy – ‘Sometimes, Forever’
Any fears I had that Sophie Allison wouldn’t be able to follow up her exemplary, emotionally resonant sophomore album Color Theory faded away as soon as I heard the euphoric, shoegaze-inspired chorus of lead single “Shotgun.” On her third album as Soccer Mommy, Allison’s music remains as affecting as ever (see: the devastating closer “Still”) while enjoying a newfound experimental edge courtesy of producer Oneohtrix Point Never. From the heart-wrenching, minimalist opener “Bones” and the Portishead-Esque “Unholy Affliction” to the Sheryl Crow-like sad bop “Feel It All The Time” and the genuinely unnerving “Darkness Forever,” Allison’s music has never been so rich and so captivating.
#5. Anaïs Mitchell – ‘Anaïs Mitchell’
If there’s anyone with nothing left to prove, it’s Anaïs Mitchell; whose album-turned-Broadway-play Hadestown became one of the great runaway success stories of the 2010s. On her first album of entirely original material in nearly a decade, Mitchell trades in grand narrative tales for homespun intimacy. The end result is a modern folk classic with all the life-affirming power of the genre’s very best. The towering highlight is “On Your Way,” a tribute to the late-collaborator Felix McTeigue. Never a funeral dirge, it instead becomes an enthusiastic rallying cry to live life to the fullest: “No regrets and no mistakes // You get one take.”
#4. Black Country, New Road – ‘Ants From Up There’
In a year less stacked with fantastic releases, this album could easily claim the top spot. On their sophomore album, London seven-piece Black Country, New Road draws inspiration from Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois, and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever with a smorgasbord of sounds that result in an album that is alternately devastatingly quiet and terrifyingly loud. At the heart of it all is lead singer Isaac Wood (who announced his departure from the band shortly before the LP’s release). His quivering vocal delivery leaves no place to hide from the album’s brutal truths and his lyrics remain utterly singular, as he uses the metaphor of a cooking tutorial on “The Place Where He Inserted The Blade” to create one of this century’s most powerful love songs. In its best moments, Ants miraculously manages to reach the same heady heights of the classics that inspired its creation.
#3. Beyoncé – ‘RENAISSANCE’
Beyoncé possesses a certain power that no other living, active musician does. On RENAISSANCE, she stands at the height of her powers, utterly self-assured while appreciative of those who paved the road for her worldwide domination. Sampling some of the most important Black and Queer music of the 20th and 21st centuries while infusing Afrobeats, House, R&B, and disco music, RENAISSANCE is an exhilarating instant classic.
#2. Big Thief – ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’
Ever since their excellent twin album releases in 2019, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, it’s been possible to credibly claim that Big Thief are working at the same level as all-time singer-songwriter greats like Carole King and Lucinda Williams were at their peak. But their fifth album sealed the deal; a joyous, life-affirming collection of 20 tunes that span indie rock, folk, and Americana and even include the use of icicles as percussion at one point.
#1. Beth Orton – ‘Weather Alive’
Beth Orton’s Weather Alive was created largely with a second-hand, sooty piano purchased at Camden Market and funded by a small bank loan. If that reality suggests intense pressure was on Orton to make her eighth album a success, it doesn’t show in the gloriously patient, sublime, and quietly revelatory music of Orton’s first self-produced LP. Arriving nearly a quarter-Century after Orton’s biggest hit, “Stolen Car,” it’s filled with the sort of wisdom and self-assurance that only comes from a lifetime of experience, as Orton finds beauty in the everyday, in memories, and in the elements. All of her pearls of wisdom are delivered via her lived-through, aching voice (admittedly, an acquired taste) that is so rich with feeling and desire – and her words are backed up by a band comprised of some of the most talented musicians currently working. Whether she’s singing of Proust, an old fling, or being brought to tears by natural beauty, she creates music that is transcendent in the truest sense of the word.