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Year In Review

The Best Things We Heard In 2022

Women listen to an early jukebox
France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

This is what the Defector staff enjoyed listening to in 2022.

"Með hækkandi sól," by Systur

My version of the Super Bowl happens in May, when many European countries and also, strangely, Australia, gather in an obscenely large hall and listen to songs that range from beautiful to demented. Every year, there are songs that exist simply as a gimmick, such as Norway’s entry, where a pop duo named Subwoolfer, dressed up in their characteristic yellow wolf-heads and business suits, “sang” the song “Give That Wolf a Banana.” There are also the many melancholy pop ballads, like Sweden’s Cornelia Jakobs singing the fairly catchy “Hold me Closer” in her bare feet, because that’s how you show you’re vulnerable! The point of Eurovision is not to produce a good song, meaning a song you would want to listen to outside of the sequined spectacle of the contest, with the two yellow wolf-men dancing and what appeared to be six Moldovan dads emerging from an LED-filled garage. But sometimes Eurovision spawns a song that is lovely on audio alone, that bottles up the spirit of a country—a song that makes you wonder, should I move to Iceland?

That song was Systur’s “Með hækkandi sól,” a glimmering, folksy song in Icelandic sung by three real-life systurs. It’s not a flashy or show-stopping song, but rather a song that feels like a taper candle lit while the winter wind whistles outside the thick glass of your windows. There is a warm loaf of bread on the table surrounded by spreads, sweet AND savory. It is cold outside, but you are inside. You are listening "Með hækkandi sól" and you are cozy. - Sabrina Imbler

“The Same,” by The Smile

I don’t believe that Radiohead is ever coming back. I think they quietly retired, because that’s how Radiohead would choose to go out. But the existence of The Smile—featuring Radiohead stalwarts Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood—eases the sting of that thought considerably. This song, in particular, is perfect.

Plenty of bands make you pump your fist. Plenty of bands can make you cry. But I can’t think of any band, outside of Radiohead and its new offspring, that is so consistently good at creating TENSION in its songs as Yorke and Greenwood are. Like “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Burn The Witch,” here’s a song that begins as a kernel of post-human dread, and then builds and builds and builds from there. The tension mounts all the way through, and you keep thinking (hoping?) for the song to blow open in a moment of catharsis, but The Smile refuses to let you off easy. They will ratchet up the urgency until you can barely stand it, and it’d be off-putting if it wasn’t all so fucking COOL. This is the coolest song of 2022, and of many other years.

Also, I don’t know how Yorke is still able to sing the way he sings at 54. His throat should look like a handful of fresh Big League Chew shreds by now. - Drew Magary

HeidiWorld, by Molly Lambert

I can't usually get into narrative podcasts. I get annoyed or bored by the stories, hosts, or general lack of stakes. I find myself wishing for a longform article I could just read instead. There is almost always something else I'd rather be listening to. That's OK, not everything has to be for everyone, and—putting aside the genre of true crime podcasts that are often fixated on harm to white people and especially white women, with the goal of provoking titillation while centering the police and offering carceral solutions—if people want to listen to Ira Glass chuckle at his own dull quips, I am happy for them. But then earlier this year I found a narrative podcast that I liked. 

HeidiWorld, a 10-part podcast series by Molly Lambert, is about "how ambitious L.A. girl Heidi Fleiss rose to become a 'Hollywood Madam' in the early 90s, and how she fell at the hands of American sexual hypocrisy." The podcast is an accounting of Fleiss's life, from her childhood with her doctor-to-the-stars father to her secluded post-jail life in Nevada with her collection of exotic birds, but more than that, it's a look at who benefits from selling sex under patriarchal capitalism and who gets punished. Lambert weaves the story of Fleiss together with media criticism, investigative reporting, and refreshing social critique to craft a relevant argument in favor of sex workers' rights.

I didn't know much about Fleiss or '90s-era Hollywood, and the podcast is chock-full of little asides about bit characters that led me down my own rabbit holes about L.A. history. For example, do you know the story of Olympic diver Sammy Lee? You should look it up (or listen to the podcast), but his son became an LAPD cop who helped take down Heidi. And talk about nepo babies—every other character in the podcast is the child of some notable person. Also, Lambert enlisted a bunch of internet-famous people to do the voices of the various characters on the podcast, if that's interesting to you. I didn't pay much attention there, but the voice acting definitely added to the podcast's appeal, and I enjoyed that everyone involved seemed to have a good time. - Laura Wagner

Are You Happy Now? by Jensen McRae

On the first day of every year, I make a playlist where I drop songs that I really like, so that I won't forget they exist. At the beginning there will be a sad one or two songs on the playlist, but as the year picks up, it ends up being a default soundtrack for my life. If I'm walking somewhere, I'll just put on the 2022 playlist and hit shuffle. I like all those songs! They're all new-ish! The vibe is all over the place, so I can always skip if it doesn't feel right. 

But there were several songs I never skipped, all of them from the same album. I had to stop adding songs from Jensen McRae's Are You Happy Now? to the playlist before the whole album ended up on there. As a fan of the sad girl genre, I'd been waiting for McRae's LP ever since she tweeted a mockup of a Phoebe Bridgers vaccination song in January 2021: 

McRae has a vocal depth like Tracy Chapman and a second-person lyricism that puts her in league with the members of Boygenius. There is a spareness to the production that feels rare in the Jack Antonoff Universe we seem to live in now. Listening to this album feels like walking into the best bar act you've ever seen, the kind that captivates you and distracts everyone from whatever they were talking about. She's a young artist, but there's nothing jarring in this album, nothing that makes me as a listener question whether or not I'm safe here, nothing to make me wonder if I should skip forward or back. I will listen to this album for a long time; it will hold me over until whatever she has for me next. - Kelsey McKinney

Sheer Mag At Tubby's

My relationship to live music was at something of an all-time low when I moved out of New York City in the spring of 2021. Spend enough nights sipping a warm $15 beer in a cavernous and cold venue like Brooklyn Steel while 65 percent of the crowd is more interested in carrying on their own conversations than they are listening to the music, and you start to lose the urge to regularly see live acts.

I certainly did not expect to regain that urge by moving to a much, much smaller city, but then I started regularly seeing shows at the local venue up here, a bar called Tubby's. The place is a dream—they put on more than 300 shows in 2022 featuring a wide range of artists, from established touring acts to locals experimenting with new noise projects. Everyone gets treated with the same amount of respect from both the audience and the venue, which imbues the whole place with a communal quality that feels earned rather than manufactured.

I saw Sheer Mag play Tubby's in May, and it rocked. There was the Platonic ideal of a rock band, standing on a small stage and giving their all for the 100 or so people capable of cramming themselves into the back room. Once the show was done, we all went to close our tabs and, still riding the specific high that comes from seeing a great show, talk about what a great night it was. In the city, I got used to leaving concerts feeling like I'd survived something for the sake of wringing a little enjoyment out of a band I like, but it never feels like that at Tubby's. You can go there on any night, and see any band, and leave the place warm and happy, like you've just stepped out of a good friend's party. - Tom Ley

"More," by j-hope

The news was impossible to miss: The biggest band in the world, BTS, was taking a break. This was inevitable; all the members are required by Korean law to serve in the military. But knowing something will happen rarely dulls the blow of when it actually happens. BTS—with millions of worldwide fans, guaranteed-to-sell-out-stadiums global tours, chart-topping songs, and the ability to have a video of them hanging out and eating hit millions of YouTube views—had to put everything on pause.

Of course, this being BTS, there was also a plan. Less than two weeks later, their company HYBE released a statement announcing that one member, j-hope, would be releasing his second solo album, called Jack in the Box.

There is no way to oversell how critical Jack in the Box would be, as the first solo project from a member of BTS in the wake of the news. Before even the first single came out, it was announced that j-hope also would headline Lollapalooza, making him the first Korean performer to headline a festival main stage here in the United States. It also meant that all eyes would be on j-hope; the man who once had six members standing beside him would suddenly stand alone in front of thousands of people, thousands of miles from home. 

Looking back, Lollapalooza was one helluva strong hint about how different Jack in the Box would be upon its release. The album is grungy, rocky, dirty, angry, hungry, and blatantly ambitious. The lead single "More," with its low-growl vocals and crashing guitars, sounded more at home on a 1990s grunge mix than anything in the back half of the BTS discography. Even the emotions it plays with, j-hope snarling at us that he is not done yet, feel a little urgent, and very raw. The music video probably most closely shares an oeuvre with the 1999 movie Fight Club

J-hope was always the member who wore his '90s hip-hop influences on his sleeve so, in retrospect, ARMY shouldn't have been too surprised. But I was shocked. It felt so far afield, so different from the recent BTS sound than a member of BTS had ever looked that at first I wasn't quite sure how to process the song. It was the kind of big swing that we often say we want artists to take—and then rebuff them when what they release isn't exactly what we want. And, I cannot emphasize this enough, this was the first BTS solo album after they announced the break. The world was watching, and in response j-hope gave everyone an album that did almost nothing that was expected. 

I don't think I completely understood the album, though, until j-hope performed songs from it live at Lollapalooza. A bit of background: In every K-pop group, different members have different responsibilities and j-hope was, on top of being a rapper, BTS's dance captain. This meant he took it upon himself to be in charge of the group's performances and make sure they were sharp and as close to perfect as possible (for your amusement, here is one of many videos of j-hope going dance teacher mode on the members). This also meant that, whenever asked, the members would always say that the best dancer was j-hope.

Then came Lollapalooza. And j-hope did not dance. 

For a while, anyway; he did eventually. (Look, this is j-hope—he can't help himself.) But for the first half, which ran about 40 minutes, he didn't dance. Yes, he strutted, sure he moved, and of course j-hope worked the crowd. He performed. But he did not dance. He just set it aside and bet on himself. 

The entire performance is on YouTube and I can't recommend watching it enough. But, if there is one moment that encapsulates it all for me, it is the song "HANGSANG." J-hope yells to the crowd, "Sing it!" then stands there, mic in the air, while the crowd sings his song while he holds the stage, all presence and silence. 

When I rewatch the performance, my mind goes to the night Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar. Both were artists at (what at the time felt like) the possible height of their craft and then went in very different directions. For me, Lollapalooza will always be j-hope going electric, and that's why his album has to be the best thing that I listened to this year.

His fellow bandmates have also gone on to release excellent solo work. Jin gave us the single “The Astronaut.” This month, RM debuted his solo album Indigo. They are both worth your time. But they exist in the path that j-hope cleared for them, releasing an album that sounded like nothing they had done for years, performing solo in a foreign country at a massive festival with big expectations, and going it alone in the endless hours of album promotion. He did it all. He made it look easy. He made it seem as if not expecting an album as raw and bold as Jack in the Box had been silly of us all. Goodness, couldn't we see it coming? 

I don't know how I'll feel about Jack in the Box years from now. That's for time to decide. But I can say, definitively, that whenever I need that final little push, be it on a long drive or before a phone call that I dread, or just finally turning in a piece of writing on deadline, it's Jack in the Box that I reach for. It reminds me that sometimes, you just have to jump into the abyss and believe that you' ll come out the other side. - Diana Moskovitz

"All The Things You Are," by Stan Kenton

Sometime in autumn, I went down a brief but exciting “All the Things You Are” rabbithole. I don’t remember exactly what started it, but what made it fun was just how distinct the various arrangements turned out to be. “All The Things You Are” is a charming little love song with a distinct and simple but emotionally pliable melody, written in 1939 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, for the musical Very Warm for May.

Everyone has covered this song, and I do mean everyone: Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie, Carly Simon, and on and on. Some are better than others. The Charlie Parker Quintet did a breathtakingly full-bodied recording before a live audience in 1947. Ella Fitzgerald recorded a very sweet and up-tempo cover in 1963, which is probably how I first encountered the tune, on some best-of type compilation. The Bill Evans trio did an irritatingly staccato and arrhythmic recording, also in 1963. Stan Getz’s arrangement, from 1969, is extremely groovy and fun. Point is, you could listen to covers of “All the Things You Are” for a couple hours straight and encounter lots of little delights and surprises, without ever growing tired of the melody, which in many of the arrangements is discarded early on in favor of improvisations and motifs. 

The one that I would like to bring to your attention in particular is a recording from jazz band leader and educator Stan Kenton, from his 1961 album The Romantic Approach. This was a weird time in the career of the prolific and forward-thinking Kenton: He’d taken up an interest in the mellophonium—then a new brass instrument developed and marketed by Conn Instruments—possibly as a gimmicky reach for attention, and possibly because he was just bored and restless. Kenton insisted that his band needed “colors that, somehow the moment you hear them on record or hear them in person, you could identify, something that didn't sound like a low trumpet or a high trombone,” and he and his longtime arranger believed they’d found it in the French horn-like mellophonium. The brass section of his band hated the ugly new instrument, rising to the level of a mutiny when most of his trombone section quit the band in protest. Jazz trumpeter Melvin Stamm played with Kenton’s band during this era, and remembered in particular just hating the shit out of those damn mellophoniums:

I felt they were just played as loud trumpets, bombastic and bellowing, and whatever characteristics they had of charm and musicality were lost. Occasionally on a ballad they would achieve this but on the up-tunes it was just four guys blowing their brains out on an instrument that was terrible.

Ah, but this is where all that screwing around with a dipshit horn that everyone hated paid off, on Kenton’s arrangement of “All the Things You Are.” He made it a ballad! Of all the various covers of this reliable old melody, Kenton’s is the one that most clearly imagines it as a song full of melancholy, and possibly even grief. And the quieted mellophoniums fit right in there, making rhythmic, wistful sounds behind and underneath the big-hearted trombones that deliver the song’s heavy emotional blasts. The first few bars are noodly jazz stuff you might expect to hear over the opening credits of a gritty William Friedkin movie—those are the mellophoniums—and then the first swell of the trombones comes along and right away it is the sound of heartache. I get a big embarrassing lump in my throat inside of the first 30 seconds of this song, literally every time I play it. The trombones yield to lush piano (played by Kenton) and a wised-up saxophone, but then just shy of the three-minute mark they come soaring back for more, vulnerable and unabashed and devastating, backed lovingly by their maligned brethren. The whole thing blows me away, man. Bad horns, good horns, great song. - Chris Thompson

Unwound's Discography

A musical experience I could not recommend more highly is discovering the one common ancestor to all the bands you currently like. It will require you, of course, to have missed them the first time around, which sucks. But it was always going to be easy to miss Unwound, even if I’d been out of diapers in their heyday. The Olympia, Wash. band practically lived to be forgotten. Their studious self-effacement worked a little too well on me: I’ve probably glossed over the one-word name on lots of old trawls for new music. But this year, as I spent weeks stuck inside each record in their catalog, I realized I’d been listening to them all along, via their downstream influence: the sharp guitar tones, the noodly time signatures, the knack for (and stinginess with) melody, a dissonant and desultory mood. I read up and realized they were a lot of my favorite artists’ favorite artist. And while their descendents might have branched off into a range of precious little subgenres—hardcore, post-hardcore, noise, post-rock, math, indie—in Unwound one found the unified primordial ooze. I dove into it.

A couple months into my fixation, as if by magic, they announced an improbable reunion tour, replacing their late bassist Vern Rumsey with a dear friend. I bought tickets without hesitation. I’m a little bummed I wasted the last two decades of my life not listening to this music, but better late than never. - Giri Nathan

"You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby," by The Smiths

The greatest thing I heard this year was from 1986. I was at an arena show by The Killers in D.C. in October and the support act, Johnny Marr, came out with the headliners for an encore. Marr launched into a tune that wasn’t introduced but whose reverb-y echo jangle was instantly recognizable as something from a time long ago and a place far away—Manchester, actually. The vocal mix was garbled enough where I was sitting that it took me a while to figure out they were playing “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby,” originally recorded and released by Marr’s brilliant and long-defunct former band, The Smiths. Good god, what a band! And what a tune! 

I’ve had the song playing almost nonstop through one of my screens or in my head ever since. Any version I can get my ears on, I’ll consume. (Here’s a good cover from Kirsty MacColl, another under-appreciated ‘80s Britpop artist with oodles of good-as-it-gets singles—top THIS—whose career was derailed when she was run over by a boat.) But I’ve spent the most time with the original recording by The Smiths, which somehow was never released as a single.

Every listen reminds me of one of the biggest musical mistakes of my life. I’ve always been a concertgoer and have seen just about every act ever wanted to and lots more. But back in the summer of 1985 my friend Will told me he was going downtown to see The Smiths at Warner Theatre and asked if I wanted to go, and I said “Nah!” for no good reason. They stopped touring the next year and broke up, so I never had another chance to see The Smiths and that hurts bad. (As a younger dirtball in 1978, I had also declined ticket offers from my friend Scott for D.C.-area shows by Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols, the latter of which was canceled. But I did pay to see Jethro Tull five tours in a row that decade. What was I drinking?)

I looked up the setlist from the 1985 Smiths show and “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” wasn’t on it, but hell if every tune they did play in my absence that night ain’t a timeless banger. Maybe my recent Smiths binge is me subconsciously trying to atone for my negligence all those years ago. 

Not that obsessing over “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” has in any way been a grind. More like a godsend! Don’t take my word for it! Listen to the song here and then here and then here, even! Rinse and repeat! How great is that? - Dave McKenna

Amon Amarth Live

You’ve probably already read too many words from too many people on the catharsis of their first live music experience after the pandemic, and anyway this wasn’t even that for me, but it was my first time back in the pit, and my god had I missed it. There are different types of concert joys. There’s the joy of hearing good music, and the joy of seeing showmen put on a show, and the joy of communal joy, but I think none settle deep in the bones quite like that day-after hum when your body feels like a tenderized slab of beef, and all the memories rush back with every twinge of a sore muscle or accidental press of a bruise. That pain is a synesthetic madeleine for the entire experience. The best thing I heard this year was actually something I felt: I rocked so hard it hurt. - Barry Petchesky

Un Verano Sin Ti, by Bad Bunny

Like a ninth-century Benedictine monk but with Wi-Fi, I spent June dutifully rewinding "Yo No Soy Celoso" and sitting back, allowing the lyrics to etch themselves deeper into my brain, and repeating the process until I had the whole song (and whistle solo) memorized. The bossa nova track didn't pop the first time I listened to Un Verano Sin Ti, though the more I listened to Bad Bunny's fourth solo studio album, the more I realized it would have to be this one. I don't really know why the song stuck its hooks into me so deeply. I am not usually like this, yet there is a pleasantly hypnotic quality to listening to the same song over and over again—a song in a language you have about a 90-percent grasp on—until you get it.

There's not much new I can really say about the biggest album in the world that hasn't already been said by actual music writers, especially those from the Caribbean, though I will say I've enjoyed the all-consuming phenomenon. There's something bracing about the ambition of a 23-song pop album that takes itself seriously as a capital-a Album, not merely a collection of songs slapped together for the purpose of gaming the streaming algorithm. Almost all of them are context-free bangers, a status that is mutually reinforced within the album when you listen to the songs in their intended order. You don't have to do that to have a good time wiggling, though. Just follow the siren call of that little seagull guy that periodically pops up. - Patrick Redford

“In The Flowers,” by Animal Collective, Live In Central Park

One of the main things that keeps me from ever getting too cynical about living in New York is finally getting to see all the bands I dreamed about when I was a midwestern high schooler with no way to travel to such mysterious far-flung places as “Terminal 5” or “The Bowery Ballroom.” As a gift to my teenage self, I checked Animal Collective off my list on a humid August night in Central Park this year.

While I spent a chunk of this new experience slightly annoyed at AC’s refusal to really show off their most crowd-pleasing accomplishments, the peaks of this set were still spectacular. When they actually play their good songs at their live shows instead of doing ambient jams, this band can really make a case for themselves as one of the best and most ecstatically melodic artists of this generation. “In The Flowers”—one of the few live songs they’ve kept around from their magnus opus Merriweather Post Pavilion—was the unquestionable highlight. As those wistful lyrics and galloping beat exploded a crowd that was braced for a pending downpour, all of the night’s musical indulgences melted out of my mind, and I bopped up and down on the grass like I was in my bedroom 11 years ago. - Lauren Theisen

The Shadow of Your Smile, by Astrud Gilberto

Autumn usually is midcentury torch-music time for me; this year for whatever reason I needed something a little different, something a little warmer and less melodramatic, melancholy but playful. Bossa nova turned out to really hit the spot, and the 1965 Astrud Gilberto album The Shadow of Your Smile did it best. I particularly like "(Take Me to) Aruanda"; in a year without any kind of vacation and no time to stand next to a big body of water and feel small, it's nice to hear Gilberto's lovely voice sing about, more or less, wanting to go to the beach. The sentiment sounds so much nicer coming from her than it does rattling around in my brain! Since October I have hummed it to myself, conservatively, 400 times. - Albert Burneko

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