I try to listen to a lot of new albums every year with the elusive goal of finding new music and artists that secure a place in my regular rotation. Reflecting on my favorite new finds reveals that it has been a really solid year with 11 albums that I rate 8/10 or higher, which I believe is more than I’ve ever had in one of these annual posts. Here are those albums that rose to the top!
A Beginner's Mind - Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine (2021)
Sufjan Stevens has a fairly diverse discography, with Carrie & Lowell and Illinois settling as my favorites after listening through its entirety. A Beginner’s Mind follows the path of the former, with a focus on Sufjan’s simplistic acoustic guitar arrangements. But this time he combines forces with Angelo De Augustine, who seems to fall within a similar genre. In fact, there are many times on this record that I am unsure which of them is actually singing the lead vocals. But the end result is a collection of great light acoustic arrangements with catchy hooks and airy vocal harmonies. I don’t think it will surpass either of the albums I mentioned as my favorites, but A Beginner’s Mind is a welcome addition to Sufjan’s catalog.
Ants From Up There - Black Country, New Road (2022)
In recent years, I owe a lot of my new music discovery to using sites like RateYourMusic.com to discover music that is highly rated by other users. It tends to be a mixed bag with a ton of highly rated albums that are complete duds for my taste, but it is worth the effort for when you find something new that clicks. Black Country, New Road is an example of a band that went from intriguing me initially to growing into one of my favorite finds of the year. Ants From Up There is a consistent album that feels fresh and strikes a great balance among melodic hooks, post-rock builds, and anxious energy. After discovering the album (which was shortly after it was released), I learned that frontman Isaac Wood had announced his departure from the band alongside the album’s release, which leaves a big question mark as to what to expect from the band in the future. But I am happy to have the excellent Ants From Up There in my music rotation, and the band’s first effort For the First Time is also solid with the anxiousness dialed up even more.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You - Big Thief (2022)
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is an album that I can never remember the name of when not reading it, and was found using the same method as Ants From Up There. In fact, the two albums currently hold the #1 and #2 spots on the overall charts for 2022 releases on RateYourMusic.com. The album starts off really mellow with Change, and I wondered if it would hold my interest, but it ended up showing a lot of stylistic range as far as acoustic folk albums go. It took a bit to adjust to the bit of country drawl in the lead singer’s voice, but the strength of the arrangements kept me coming back long enough to have it grow on me. If anything, it is too long at an hour and twenty minutes, but I was able to trim it down to closer to an hour by filtering out a few songs that were weaker for my tastes (Simulation Swarm is probably the strongest of the lot). Overall an impressive album, as it isn’t easy to put together such a long collection of music in this genre without feeling repetitive.
Hatful of Hollow - The Smiths (1984)
Following the segue of “bands that took some time for the lead vocalist to grow on me,” The Smiths are a poster child in that category. Morrissey’s singing style and lyrics can be pretty off-putting at first blush, and my first listen ended in me not exploring their music any further. It was later when listening to my Spotify-generated “Discover Weekly” playlist that The Smiths’ song Cemetry Gates caught my attention, primarily due to the interplay of the guitar and bass, and probably due to the vocals being a little more approachable. This led to a more thorough listening of their discography with good headphones, and I kept found myself coming back to them. Hatful of Hollow is the most consistently strong of their efforts, in my opinion, and the guitar and bass of their arrangements have clicked for me for reasons that are hard to describe.
OK Human - Weezer (2021)
I have known and generally liked some of Weezer’s biggest hits, but had never really revisited their music as I got older. Somewhere I ran across a comment that praised OK Human as being Weezer’s take on string-driven chamber pop, and it intrigued me enough to listed to a few songs. I found myself extremely and pleasantly surprised, partly driven by the fact that the opening 3-song quasi-medley are the strongest songs on the album. Not only did OK Human land as one of my favorites of the year, but it also prompted me to completely revisit Weezer’s discography. And, oh boy, Weezer’s albums are all over the place haha… ranging from borderline unlistenable to excellent, it was worth the effort to integrate the worthwhile efforts into my rotation (Blue Album and White Album are probably my other favorites).
Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers (2020)
The “indie folk” genre of music is a tricky one. While I enjoy a fair number of albums in the genre, there seems to be such a blurred line between the albums I enjoy and those I find boring. It was hard to tell where Punisher would land after my first listen, but it steadily rose on subsequent listens for reason that are hard to pinpoint. I think one key is that Phoebe Bridgers has a singing voice that I find pleasing independent of the musical arrangements. But the arrangements are strong here as well, balancing the lows and highs throughout the album before finishing with the powerful and cathartic outro of I Know the End. It is the kind of album that feels like it is best to listen to while driving in the rain at night, but sometimes that is exactly what I am looking for.
The Queen Is Dead - The Smiths (1986)
All my comments on Hatful of Hollow apply here as well, but I find The Queen Is Dead to be less consistent with higher highs. While I enjoy most of the early songs on the album, they also outstay their welcome a bit (looking at you track 1 and I Know It’s Over), and I am mostly looking forward to hitting the stretch from Cemetry Gates onward. That said, the highs are enough to still carry it to its inclusion on this list, with songs like Bigmouth Strikes Again and There Is a Light That Never Goes Out being some of the best in their entire discography. If you’ve never listened to The Smiths before, I’d predict you won’t love them at first. But if you like what you hear with the backing bass and guitar, you might just need to give it some time to grow on you like it took for me.
Rain Dogs - Tom Waits (1985)
If you go in blind and just start the first track of Rain Dogs, you are probably going to wonder what the heck you are listening to. My initial impression was that it sounds like a Disney villain singing in a dirty saloon. As I kept listening though, I started to notice more of the underlying jazz grooves, adjust to the almost caricatured vocal performance, and found myself getting the hooks stuck in my head. Additionally, I found that the opening track Singapore is more in-your-face with the style than a lot of the songs that follow, and once I had spun the entire album a few times I really appreciated the contrast and flow that it contained. If you start with more ballad-like tracks like Hang Down Your Head, Time, and Downtown Train, it allows you to warm to Wait’s style more gradually before you are ready to enjoy the more extreme tracks like Singapore, Rain Dogs, and Cemetery Polka. As I enjoyed the album more and more, I realized that one of its biggest strengths in my music collection is just how different it is — I’m glad I stuck with it.
Ram - Paul McCartney (1971)
As I have retroactively listened to discographies of old bands, I have more often than not been underwhelmed by the most highly regarded artists and albums of 30+ years ago. One big exception to that is The Beatles. As time has gone on, my opinion of The Beatles has only grown, especially the later albums culminating with the sublime Abbey Road. Naturally, I was interested in what the individual Beatles worked on after that masterpiece. I haven’t listened to a lot of the post-Beatle records yet, but Ram is the first one I sampled that caught my attention as approaching the quality that I was hoping for. It is just filled with a lot of great pop rock hooks and just the right amount of McCartney’s quirky side. While it doesn’t reach the heights of my favorite Beatles albums, it feels like a classic in its own right.
Smiling With No Teeth - Genesis Owusu (2021)
Every once in a while, I will find an album that really falls outside of the genres that I typically enjoy that resonates unexpectedly. Smiling With No Teeth is exactly that, though it doesn’t feel like an album that falls neatly within a single genre. RateYourMusic.com has it classified as “Neo-soul” with sub-genres of “Conscious Hip Hop,” “Funk,” and “Post-Punk” among others. Not sure what you would expect from that description, but when I popped on my headphones and started Smiling With No Teeth, I found myself really digging the grooves and less explicit approach to hip hop. Repeated listens further solidified it as one of my favorites from the year and a very impressive debut album for Genesis Owusu.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots - The Flaming Lips (2002)
I was introduced to the track Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1 back in high school, and while I thought it was quirky and liked it, I don’t think my musical tastes had developed to the point where it would hold my attention. This past year, I was reminded of the track and revisited it. Not only did I really like it, but I also found that the album it is found on is generally highly rated. I gave it a spin and it’s really good! Catchy indie rock with a healthy dose of psychedelic electronica and a handful of tracks with top-grade hooks that find their way into your brain through the day (do…. you…. REALIZE??). As one of the most recent listens on this list, I haven’t had the chance to explore other albums by The Flaming Lips, but they have certainly piqued my interest with the strength of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1.
Music tastes are funny thing, and assembling this year’s list shows me how new music continues to shape what I enjoy. History has taught me that five years from now I may have cooled drastically on some of the albums here, and some may have grown into all-time favorites. But in the snapshot of my musical tastes right now, I think this is a pretty great collection of music.