Compared to the last couple of years, 2022 has been a bonanza of incredible rock record releases. It seems like every week there are two or three projects just begging for proper time and attention. Many artists who were kept off the road due to the pandemic and were inspired to write during their forced, sabbatical and have returned with fresh perspectives and new sounds. Then there were those who held back some of their best material to wait and see how the state of the world shook out. However they got to 2022, and it’s a joy to finally begin to hear these legitimately righteous records.
It’s probably a little too soon for me to declare an absolute favorite album out of the bunch we’ve gotten so far. It’s been such an eclectic year for rock albums, with artists of every stripe truly delivering the goods. I’ve also spent a lot of time with some of these, to the point where the choruses feel imprinted into my DNA. Others? We’re still in the “get to know you phase,” but I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard thus far. Anyway, I hope this alphabetized list will at least inspire a few new additions to the BBQ playlist before the 4th of July weekend.
Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
Big Thief’s fifth album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is without any doubt their best. Given the group’s track record for releasing stunning, deeply evocative suites of songs, that’s certainly saying something. The Brooklyn band spread their wings on this project and hit the open road. They recorded 20 songs across five studios in five different parts of the country over five months. It’s an eclectic record filled with janky instrumentals, sweeping ballads, and some inspired and delightfully weird lyrical observations from lead vocalist Adrienne Lenker about religion, red moons, and infinite potatoes. I don’t have a favorite album of 2022 yet, but this is definitely the one I’ve listened to the most. Throw it on in the car, drive to somewhere with a stunning view, and consider the outlines of your life. You won’t be disappointed.
Best Song: “Simulation Swarm”
Destroyer – Labyrinthitis
I can listen to Dan Bejar talk/sing about the desperate state of the world any time, any place. Even more so these days. The Canadian songwriter mastered the art on Destroyer’s stunning 2011 album Kaputt and has only expanded the form with each new project. Two years ago’s Have We Met was a pandemic-era favorite, but his latest record Labyrinthitis might be even better. The sonics are just so immersive. Jazz chords explode into new-wave synth sounds. Funky basslines bounce around jaunty guitar licks. Drum machines keep everything on the rails and in perfect time, while Bejar explodes into the front of the mix with a kaleidoscopic range of impressionistic lyrical imagery. Let’s just hope that “The Last Song” isn’t the last song.
Best Song: “June”
Father John Misty – Chloë and the Next 20th Century
The first few times I listened to this album it didn’t really click for me. The Father John Misty I’ve grown accustomed to across the last decade is one who created either deeply personal, endlessly sardonic odes to love and heartbreak. Or, alternatively, massive, panoramic treatises about the state of the world and our individual place in it. Chloë and the Next 20th Century is neither of those things. It feels like a sepia-tinted collection of short stories from an age long past. The vaudeville vibe is strong with this one. Once I got past my own expectation for what Josh Tillman was prepared to offer the world, I eventually saw the beauty of it all. Hearing “Kiss Me (I Loved You)” while rolling down a mountain highway in Northern Idaho certainly helped unlock charms this project had to offer.
Best Song: “Olvidado (Otro Momento)”
Gang of Youths – Angel in Realtime
When David La’aupepe’s father died in 2018, he was left understandably shattered. But then a series of stunning revelations rocked his world even further. Not only had Tattersall La’aupepe been a decade older than he said, but he had also fathered a pair of sons that David only learned about after his father’s death. The whole saga is cataloged in stunningly honest detail across Gang of Youth’s dense third album Angel in Realtime. Over nearly 70 minutes of music, La’aupepe tells his family’s story accompanied by a soaring suite of songs that echo the grandeur of some of the best U2 albums. It’s a window into a world and culture around Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands of which I had little understanding. It’s also an intensely personal tract about how we view and think about our fathers, with which I’m all too familiar.
Best Song: “Tend the Garden”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Unlimited Love
John Frusciante is back baby! After stepping away for a decade to pursue an array of interesting solo endeavors – including some wild electronic music – the Chili Peppers erstwhile guitar savant has returned to the fold, ripping off solos and riffs like he never left. While Unlimted Love doesn’t rise to the dizzying heights of Blood Sugar Sex Magik or Californication, its charms are obvious to anyone who’s grown up with the funky sounds of one of Southern California’s most notable exports. Come to hear Anthony Kiedis sing like an ancient mariner on “Black Summer. Stay for the wild freakout near the end of “The Heavy Wing.”
Best Song: “Let ‘Em Cry”
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Endless Rooms
From the moment I hit play on The French Press EP sometime in 2017, I’ve been a fan of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. The full-length follow-up album, 2018’s Hope Downs? Even better. This year, the Aussie rock band has lived up to their reputation for producing gorgeous, jangly guitar melodies that somehow manage to wallop your solar plexus. Endless Rooms builds on the template from their past, while also expanding the scope. The songs are bigger, but so is the scope. I don’t what’s in the water in Australia these days, but it seems like the land down under keeps producing some of the most vital artists of the 2020s. RBCF can certainly count themselves among their number.
Best Song: “The Way it Shatters”
The Smile — A Light for Attracting Attention
When Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood make music together, you pay attention. I don’t make the rules, that’s just how it is. Stepping out of the framework of their renowned Radiohead configuration, the pair have teamed up once again in a new band they’ve dubbed The Smile. That said, A Light For Attracting Attention sounds…pretty much like a new Radiohead album. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, but I always assume when artists take a sabbatical from their main gig, it’s usually to do something totally out of left field. I’m not complaining about it or anything – the same, balancing on the edge of a knife, dangling above infinity vibe we’ve all come to know and love from Yorke and Greenwood’s prior collaborations is present and accounted for – it’s just interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily be shocked to get another Smile record or two before the singer and guitarists call up their old bandmates once again. There’s a reason after all that SPIN picked it as the best album of 2022 so far. As Yorke sings, “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings.”
Best Song: “Pana-Vision”
Spoon – Lucifer on the Sofa
Over the last two decades, Spoon have amassed a well-earned reputation for being the most reliable great rock bands of the modern era. When the Austin rockers drop a new album, you don’t have to guess if it’s going to be good or not. You can take it on faith that it will be. The same can be said for Lucifer on the Sofa, Spoon’s 10th studio record. Britt Daniel said several months back that the band’s goal of this project was to take things back to their roots, and make a real, visceral rock album. The kind where you can hear the sweat pouring off the studio walls as you’re listening to it. I think it’s fair to call this one mission accomplished. It’s been four months, and the chorus to “The Hardest Cut” is still stuck in my head.
Best Song: “The Devil & Mister Jones”
Sharon Van Etten – We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
Sharon Van Etten doesn’t miss. After dropping what I thought was the best album of her career in 2019, Remind Me Tomorrow, the New Jersey native returned three years later with yet another arresting collection of songs. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong sounds like a noisy, and inspired existential crisis. Guilt. Anger. Resignation. Defiance. You’ll hear it all in the grooves of these 10 tracks. Van Etten tries to make sense of our fractured world on this album; a sometimes-terrifying place where your hopes can go up like the wildfire smoke that engulfed the West Coast of America in 2020. But in the end, it’s important to remember that “Darkness Fades.”
Best Track: “Headspace”
Kurt Vile – Watch My Moves
Ever since Kurt Vile broke out with his fourth album Smoke Rings for My Halo 11 years ago, the Philly-based singer-songwriter has made a career out of conjuring expansive, hazy guitar atmospherics blended with Americana touches and clever and confounding wordplay. Watch My Moves is the latest iteration of that formula, and a damn good one. It’s a more than worthy successor to some of Vile’s best records like B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down and Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, and feels like a marked improvement over his last release Bottle It In. While his original compositions all have their charms – his staccato singing style combined with swirling chord progressions on “Palace of OKV in Reverse” is a legitimate trip – it’s the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Wages of Sin” that nearly steals the show.
Best Song: “Like Exploding Stones”
Wet Leg – Wet Leg
Every year there’s at least one band who explodes onto the scene out of nowhere and steals the cultural conversation. You’ve never heard of them, and suddenly they’re everywhere. In 2022, that was Wet Leg. The name of their album: Wet Leg. This British indie duo hailing from the Isle of Wight hit the ground running last year releasing their ear-wormy single “Chaise Lounge” – pronounced chayze long – and have yet to look back. The songs are fun, infectious, and endlessly weird. Every few listens a line will hit me sideways and cause me to tilt my head into confusion like a German Shepherd trying to make sense of the Final Jeopardy! theme music. I can’t wait to hear what they do next.
Best Song: “Ur Mum”
Wilco – Cruel Country
What could possibly be better than a Wilco album? How about a double Wilco album! As the record’s title suggests, this project was billed ahead of time as a sort of return to Jeff Tweedy’s alt-country roots. He’s even been wearing a cowboy hat in the promo materials. There’s certainly more lap steel guitar lines and twangy Telecaster licks than you’d hear on say, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Sky Blue Sky, but as far as writing goes, Cruel Country feels very much like a continuation of the music they created for 2019’s stripped-down release Ode to Joy. Just…a lot more of it. And that ain’t a bad thing.
Best Song: “Tonight’s the Day”