2022: Extraordinary Colors

The year I came back, heck, we all came back from the dead even if the pandemic’s not over yet. Regardless, we needed this—life can’t possibly be the same as before, so all we can do is seek that which inspires us to go forward. In that regard, Jessie Ware’s “Free Yourself” is the track of the year: an invitation to the dancefloor (among other activities), a commandment more than a request, it pleads for renewal, self-expression and cathartic release. Currently a standalone single (it may or may not appear on Ware’s next album, rumored for 2023), it’s also a natural progression from last year’s best song, “Like I Used To”: “Keep on moving up that mountaintop,” indeed.

Even if their albums didn’t crack my top ten, a number of veteran acts put out exceptional singles this year: Beach House fine-tuning their dream-pop gauze with “Superstar”, Alison Goldfrapp returning as a guest on Röyksopp’s burbling epic “Impossible”, Hurray For The Riff Raff’s searing, anthemic “Pierced Arrows”, Regina Spektor still a delightful weirdo on the tip-top whimsy of “Up The Mountain”, even The Dream Syndicate, having now released as many albums in the past decade as in their original 1980s incarnation proving their continued worth with “Damian”—as brisk and cool as an evening wind.

Among artists new to me in 2022: Australian Hatchie, whose “Quicksand” pays homage to late Cocteau Twins and gets away with it for being as precise and pleasurable as late Siouxsie and the Banshees; Bartees Strange, in the running to become his generation’s Stew only as a postpunk explorer instead of a showtunes guy; Alex G, an indie weirdo crafting jingle-worthy jangle pop on “Runner” while managing to turn the lyric, “Load it up, know your trigger like the back of my hand” a sing-along hook; and The xx’s Oliver Sim in his solo debut, a sly, queer commentary too jaunty and droll to fit in his band’s discography (and presented to best effect in Yann Gonzalez’s short film Hideous.)

Also: Tears For Fears reunited and made an album that didn’t suck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs reunited and made an album that was at best inconsequential save for the dramatic, searing “Burning”, Junior Boys returned with Waiting Game which lacked actual tunes expect for the evocative closer of a title track and First Aid Kit showed they’re ready for world domination even if the Fleetwood Mac-worthy “Out of My Head” won’t actually accomplish it. What I’m craving in the year to come, however, is more stuff like Christine and The Queens’ “Combien de Temps”, an eight-and-a-half-minute vamp that gradually feels more knowing than it initially lets on while fully sustaining its stoned groove as if it were Traffic (or perhaps Morcheeba.) Supposedly, there’s more to come from that project in 2023 along with Emm Gryner, who previewed her forthcoming Business and Pleasure with “Valencia”, a yacht rock homage that acknowledges regret but firmly pushes towards brighter days ahead.

My favorite songs of 2022:

2021: Falling In Love Like I Used To

You could be forgiven for thinking of 2021, already labelled a year of “languishing” by the New York Times as also one of stasis where music is concerned. We took comfort in artists making unexpected returns: most miraculously ABBA with their first album in forty years, the patchy but true-to-form Voyage (with its legitimately great single “Don’t Shut Me Down”) but also long-awaited new stuff from Kings of Convenience (after an absence of 12 years), Arab Strap (15), Liz Phair (11), Jose Gonzalez (6) and other acts adhering to the usual 3-4 year cycle between releases, from Aimee Mann and Kacey Musgraves to Tori Amos and Twin Shadow.

Fortunately, many of my favorite tracks came from out of the blue: Mia Doi Todd’s loving yet sharp boho paean to the “Music Life”, The Felice Brothers keeping in check with the gallows humor of the times on “Jazz On The Autobahn”, Emm Gryner going giddy EDM-pop with “All Love All The Time”, Rufus Wainwright taking to the dancefloor with his Ampersounds collaboration “Technopera”, Yard Act invoking the spirit of Art Brut with “Dark Days”, both Wolf Alice and Colleen Green recreating 90s alt-rock in their own images (“Smile” and “I Wanna Be A Dog”, respectively), The War on Drugs perfecting their anthemic retro-isms on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” and Middle Kids offering up their own anthem for the ages with the bighearted “Stacking Chairs”. So many great tracks this year that I couldn’t even limit myself to usual forty, easily expanding my playlist to fifty.

I want to single out two more songs. When I first heard “Chaise Longue”, I immediately pictured Wet Leg as Brit versions of the disaffected teens played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke in the 2017 film Thoroughbreds. Thankfully, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers are far droller than that, their mostly spoken post-punk a prospect both familiar and, in this climate, totally refreshing. Strung together with quotable, cheeky lyrics (“I went to school, and I got the big D”), their debut single is a gas and a tonic to all of this year’s troubles.

However, “Like I Used To” is my best-loved song of 2021 by a wide margin. In the past, I’ve casually admired both Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen but never could’ve guessed how sinuously their voices would blend together. In this standalone duet released in May, against a Springsteen/Spector-like wall of sound, they sing of a will to survive and a hope for renewal that many of us can relate to following a year-plus of crisis, heartbreak and uncertainty. The title serves as a mantra of sorts in the majestic chorus, repeated with modifiers like “Sleepin’ in late”, “Avoiding big crowds”, “Dancing all alone” and “Taking what’s mine”. “Like I Used To” is both a lament and a promise, the yearning and resilience in Van Etten’s and Olsen’s voices deeply resonant as we look to the future.

My favorite songs of 2021:

1971: You’ll Never Be Free

As this current year is its semicentennial, I’d planned on crafting this playlist long before the Apple TV miniseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything dropped. While one could make a similar argument for any single year (indeed, I’ve read a book about 1966 and have seen others for nearly every year in-between), this series made a solid enough case, from Sly Stone to The Rolling Stones and unexpected deep dives into Gil Scott-Heron, The Staple Singers and Bill Withers, not to mention ample coverage of Tapestry, Bowie, Joni, Elton, Marvin, etc.

Even over eight hours, a few things are bound to fall through the cracks. Thus, my inclusion of lesser-revered ’71 gems such as the epic opener of Serge Gainsbourg’s masterful concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, the climactic, penultimate track of British folkie Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, novelty hits from Redbone and James Brown and the best song from Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Love and Hate, a proverbial “difficult third album” I’m just beginning to appreciate years after first struggling with it.

All that, plus three out of four ex-Beatles (sorry George, “Bangla Desh” isn’t up to snuff) and AM radio gold from The Fortunes (a fake Four Seasons sounding better than the real thing at this point) and the Carpenters (Karen’s slipping-into-darkness reverie was made for something like “Superstar”.) I could’ve spotlighted Al Green’s strangely jubilant “Tired of Being Alone” or Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” (from the indelible opening credits of Harold and Maude), but, even if you’ve heard it (or seen Goodfellas) a million times, Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” retains its one-of-a-kind spark: with a groove as insistent as the one in “Hot Pants”, it’s a frenzied declaration of lust/love from a madman wailing “WE CAN MAKE EACH OTHER HAPPY!!!” repeatedly into the void. I still love that this was his follow-up single to number-one ballad “Without You”.

My 1971 Spotify playlist:

1978: I Hated You; I Loved You, Too

It’s the golden age of New Wave, from heavy hitters like Blondie (“Picture This”, while not a US hit encapsulates everything great about them) and Elvis Costello to cult artists such as Nick Lowe (a year away from his only US hit) and Talking Heads (opted for their elegiac single rather than the obvious one from that year) and a few true weirdos (XTC, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Devo (whose chaotic Stones cover is the very definition of smashing “post” and “punk” together.))

Still, the above selections comprise but a small portion of what the year had to offer—you can make ’78 look especially cool by spotlighting The Undertones, The Ramones, even a reformed Walker Brothers (with the wondrous, Bowie-aping “Nite Flights”), but it’s not the whole story. Far more telling is Olivia Newton-John, the only artist who appears more than once here with the John Travolta duet “You’re The One That I Want” (honestly the only thing I love about Grease) and her late-in-the-year, lesser-remembered smash “A Little More Love”, which nearly rivals ABBA (don’t worry, they’re here too) in ultra-catchy power-rock shlock.

Actually, let’s talk about schlock (some might alternately describe it as “trash”.) I suppose I’m more susceptible to it from this period for it would make up a notable portion of the first songs I’d remember hearing on the radio in the immediate years to come. The epic sax solos of “Baker Street” and “Time Passages”, Michael McDonald’s inimitable backing vocals on “You Belong To Me”, the faux-exotic, extra-cheese samba that is “Copacabana”—all of them talismans from my early childhood, none of them at odds of ever remotely seeming hip (at least until Yacht Rock became a recognized, categorized thing in the 2000s).

Disco only further plays into this: sure, one can unironically praise the crisp, gleaming funk of “Dance With Me” or lush elegance of “I Want Your Love” or unstoppable drive of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”; however, one then must also consider “I Love The Nightlife (Disco ‘Round)” where Alicia Bridges’ campy intonation surely inspired generations of drag performers or (speaking of camp) Boney M’s inexplicable “Rasputin” (aka, “Russia’s Greatest Love Machine”), which threads both the ridiculous and the sublime more seamlessly than even Santa Esmeralda did in ’77 or Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes in ’75.

As usual, Kate Bush is an entirely different matter. If you listen to her debut single “Wuthering Heights” (not the ’86 remake on The Whole Story, my own introduction to it) or watch the music video above, you might be tempted to lump her in with all that schlock (and camp) and call it a day. But no, there’s something present within the song, within her essence, even, that transcends the very notion of schlock—an ingenuity projecting sincerity even in the most theatrical of presentations. It blows my mind that this was a four-weeks-at-number-one-hit in the UK and yet, it makes total sense that so many listeners could instantly give themselves over to it. Bush’s salvo is one-of-a-kind in how it simultaneously looks forwards and backwards, utilizing elements from the past to formulate what still feels like a whole new language.

My 1978 playlist on Spotify:

1977: Thunder In The Afternoon

The year of RumoursStar Wars and Saturday Night Fever (all represented!) but also so much more. For one thing, punk very much becomes a thing in ‘77—not on American Top 40 but certainly in the UK, where The Clash and The Sex Pistols lead the charge and leave room for a bevy of weirdos (from XTC to X-Ray Spex) who would come to shape and define what we now call new wave (or post-punk if you prefer.) In addition to OG punks The Ramones putting out their second and third albums, you can also hear the stirrings of this new genre bubbling up in fellow yanks Talking Heads and Television; France also has its say with Plastic Bertrand’s cheeky one-off, which smashes the 50s, 60s and 70s together until it resembles punk.

Even before Travolta transformed into a silver screen, white-suited icon at year’s end, disco was arguably at its creative peak. The extended dance remix, popularized by Donna Summer the previous year nearly dominates this playlist, from Santa Esmeralda’s epic flamenco-disco take on an Animals song and Belle Epoque’s quirky fiddle-laced take on the genre (when I first heard those intro vocals, I thought I’d put on Joan Jett or Suzi Quatro by mistake) to Cerrone’s proto-hi-NRG anthem and, of course, Summer’s own synthetic, predicting-the-‘80s-and-beyond masterpiece “I Feel Love”.

And yet, “Marquee Moon” remains the longest track here, for the post-punkers and prog-rockers felt more comfortable taking their time as well. By then, you expected six-minute mood pieces from the likes of Supertramp and newly solo Peter Gabriel, perhaps even Brian Eno too (“Julie With…” serenely drifts in and gradually coalesces only to gently fade into the ether.) But Steely Dan? Making the title track of their best-selling LP an eight-minute tone poem almost jazzy enough for fusion-era Miles Davis? And endurable enough for me to first hear on classic rock radio on a chilly Saturday afternoon in early 1993?

Balancing out other big hits from rockers (ELO, Heart, the unsinkable Meatloaf), MOR-ers (Jimmy Buffett, Commodores, ABBA) and dancers (Chic, KC, Marvin Gaye and the most perfect disco single of all time from Thelma Houston) are the relatively lesser-known gems: Joan Armatrading’s rhythmic folk, a track from Leonard Cohen’s Phil Spector-produced LP (mostly included for its title, but whatta title), ex-Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s attempt to make his own Nilsson Schmilsson and Bobbie Gentry, who recorded a few tracks around this time that didn’t see the light of the day until much later. “Thunder In The Afternoon” sounds very little like her 1967-74 catalog but it’s so full of promise it leaves one wondering what else she could’ve done had she kept releasing albums well into the next decade or three.

My 1977 Playlist:

1976: It’s The Best I Can Do

With no firsthand memory of it (being one year old at the time), for me, 1976 will always evoke the US Bicentennial, the ascendancy of disco and Stevie Wonder’s monumental (if not best*) album Songs In The Key Of Life, whose still-dazzling first single leads off this year’s playlist. Another prime ’76 totem remains Wings’ sublimely daft “Silly Love Songs”, over which I’ve chosen its follow-up hit “Let ‘Em In” if only for its sheer weirdness—the precise moment Paul truly began making pop directly geared towards potheads (give or take a “Hi, Hi, Hi”.)

Rather than blending everything together like a fruit salad (or, this being the ‘70s, a health shake laced with alfalfa sprouts and some ‘ludes because why not), I chose to get a few extended grooves goin’. Thus, the first dozen tracks gradually shift from funk to disco, finding common ground between Boz Scaggs and ELO, or squeaky-clean Tavares and real-life porn actress Andrea True. Moroder’s Euro-sleaze version of a Moody Blues (!) song isn’t that far removed from the Bee Gees’ banger (the one so brilliant it practically gave Saturday Night Fever a reason for existing a year later.) And of course, fellow SNF soundtrack fixture “A Fifth of Beethoven”, pure cheese that has somehow taken on a transcendent cast in recent years, thanks in no small part to its use over the opening credits of last year’s fantastic Mrs. America miniseries.

ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is not only peak ’76 (from Arrival, but a hit single the next year) but also the Swedish foursome’s crowning achievement (“Dancing Queen” a close second), encompassing infinite shades of heartbreak in an immaculate pop song where the cracks still show but never fully give way to chaos amidst the steady beat and melodic hooks. Not even Elton and Kiki’s impassioned duet can top it.

While disco nears its artistic summit (but doesn’t quite reach it—check back next year) with extended jams from Donna Summer, The Spinners, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Miss Diana Ross (her best single of the ’70s), there’s also new sounds to behold: punk via The Runaways and The Ramones (albeit at their cuddliest here with “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”), new wave from Blondie and The Modern Lovers (I don’t know where else to slot the latter; Jonathan Richman is more defiant dweeb than mere punk) and the newfound resilience of their antecedents (Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie.) 

The lingering ennui of “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart (the proto-Stuart Murdoch) is as good a place as any to go out on, although I debated placing The Langley Schools Music Project version of “Rhiannon” at the end: when those kids suddenly go loud at the chorus, it’s spookier than anything even Stevie Nicks could’ve come up with.

My favorite songs of 1976 on Spotify:

*Innervisions, of course.

1982: Don’t Get Caught

I struggled to get to 33 tracks on my 1983 playlist; for this one, I had difficulty cutting it off at 40. I could’ve easily put together an all-post-punk/new wave version with as many songs, or an all Brit edition or even an American Top 40 variety; I’m sure a solid American-indie representation of 1982’s out there somewhere, curated by a soul with more firsthand knowledge of it than myself.

What I’ve ended up with, naturally, is a blend of all of the above that still leans heavily towards post-punk/new wave because there’s just so goddamn much of it: The Cure entering their goth-pop phase with a newfound emphasis on the latter, The (English) Beat ever more sophisticated and expansive with “Save It For Later”, quirky one-offs like Haircut 100 and Wall of Voodoo claiming their moment in the sun, synth-pop now officially a chart-worthy thing, as witnessed by Yaz’s venerable ballad and Missing Persons’ El Lay take on the genre; even relative “veterans” like Sparks and Kate Bush bending their sounds and styles to fit into and, at least in Bush’s case redefine the genre.

There’s also a bunch of R&B/rock mutations: Grace Jones furthering the genre-splicing she perfected the previous year, Kid Creole and The Coconuts sharpening their bon vivant take on New Wave, Prince swaggering his way into the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time and even Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, a black rock pioneer going unapologetically, disarmingly pop (with baroque trumpet solo, even!)

Predictably, I couldn’t ignore those mainstream hits that made an indelible impression on my seven-year-old brain. I’ve spared you such cheese as “Key Largo” and Taco’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” but have made room for Bee Gees-produced Dionne Warwick (Gibb a much better Barry for her than Manilow), the smooth, hook-laden reassurance of the Alan Parsons Project, Stevie Wonder’s last great single, one of Paul McCartney’s best forgotten ones, and of course, “Goody Two Shoes”, Adam Ant’s only early 80s American top 40 hit (in this case, us Yanks chose the best, most endearing one.)

Despite the abundance of Brits represented, I’m more interested in that American-indie contingent I was far too young to know at the time. Some days, “Mesopotamia” is my favorite B-52’s song, riding texture and a groove unlike any of their other standards (Fred Schneider’s bolstering “Before I talk, I should READ a BOOK!” is just the icing on a multi-layered cake); other days, I hear “Wolves, Lower”, the opener from R.E.M.’s first EP Chronic Town and it’s as fresh and exciting and enigmatic as it ever was, even compared to all the era-defining things they’d make over the next decade.

My 1982 Playlist:

1983: When Things Fall Into Place

If 1984’s the year when new wave completes its mutation into new pop, its predecessor reveals just how much the former could evolve before being superseded by the latter. Across this spectrum, you have postpunk stalwarts such as The Cure and Siouxsie at their most accessible to-date and old souls like Tom Waits and Joan Armatrading at their spikiest and most contemporary sounding.

And yet, much of what’s included here comes from artists making their debuts: Violent Femmes and R.E.M. representing new regional Americana, Billy Bragg reinventing electric folk for the post-Dylan era, Heaven 17 and The Blue Nile adding soul and atmosphere, respectively to synth-pop, The Smiths and to a lesser extent The Three O’Clock kicking off the ‘60s revival through slightly askew lenses and of course, Madonna basically updating what would’ve been called disco a few years previously (now under the safer guise of “Dance Music”.)

In some cases, I chose the less obvious hits: “Modern Love” (despite renewed interest in it due to stuff like this) instead of “Let’s Dance”, “Church of the Poison Mind” but not “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”, “Love Is A Stranger” over “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, etc. While there’s nothing by The Police, Michael Jackson or one-hit wonders Nena, Kajagoogoo and Eddy Grant (I would’ve included “Electric Avenue” if the original hit version was on Spotify), I still made room for the immortal “Time After Time” (a hit in ’84 but first released on She’s So Unusual in ’83) and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (RIP Jim Steinman), which you’d want in a time capsule for future generations to effusively understand what the year sounded like at its loudest and most expensive.

As for 1983 at its weirdest, look no further than “Shiny Shiny”, which asks the question, “What’s more inexplicable, the band’s name or the song?” (Answer: its music video.) For those seeking a little extra substance with their style, you can’t go wrong with The The’s “This Is The Day”, which grafts jubilant fiddle and accordion onto an electro-exoskeleton and sports a melody that blooms and resounds with each passing minute—an anthem both melancholy and bright that feels neither faceless nor cheap.

My 1983 Playlist:

1981: Feeling Like A Woman, Looking Like A Man

The peak year for post-punk, 1981 even had its own theme song of sorts in Kim Wilde’s immortal “Kids In America”. It came from the synth-end of that spectrum, along with other such newfangled artists as Depeche Mode, OMD and Soft Cell (not to mention then-veterans Kraftwerk); from the guitar-end, you had The English Beat, Pretenders, The Go-Go’s, even the good ol’ Ramones. More often than not, however, post-punk encompassed a canny blend of the two, an in-between space that collected oddballs from Romeo Void (with Deborah Iyall wailing “I might like you better if we slept together” over and over again into the void) to Adam & The Ants, whose “Prince Charming” is surely one of the oddest UK number one hits of the 80s.

On that note, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” is easily the oddest UK number two hit ever, a free-form, spoken word proto-AMSR tone poem spread out over eight minutes. As a six-year-old in Wisconsin, I didn’t hear it until I was in my twenties. My favorite song at the time was undoubtedly the famous-orchestral-flourishes-over-a-drum-machine-beat medley “Hooked On Classics”; I remember becoming ecstatic whenever it came on the radio and I fully appreciated its recent appearance in the gay sex montage in the first episode of It’s A Sin.

Most of the stuff I knew at the time came from Solid Gold and my parents’ preferred soft rock station; while I have a nagging respect for some of it, you won’t see the likes of Air Supply, Christopher Cross or even Rick Springfield here. But Kim Carnes’ husky voice (and slap-happy music video) for “Bette Davis Eyes” endures, as does Lindsey Buckingham’s “Trouble” (he had no good reason to keep such gibberish in the intro, but I’m thankful he did) and ABBA’s startling, verging-on-new-wave “The Visitors” (Who are these “Visitors”? Immigrant hordes? Alien invaders? Mere figments of the singer’s imagination?)

This is the year hip-hop begins to seep (however slowly) into pop culture. Although I didn’t include Blondie’s “Rapture” (too obvious, opting for Debbie Harry’s flimsier but kookier solo effort) or Grandmaster Flash, I did make room for the soon-to-be heavily-sampled ESG and Tom Tom Club, plus Frankie Smith’s novelty crossover and Gil Scott-Heron’s epic proto-rap Reagan takedown. Inevitably, my attention shifts over to post-disco anthems by Taana Gardner, Was (Not Was) and former disco diva herself Grace Jones—Nightclubbing, her gender-bending (and genre-bending) apotheosis has steadily grown into one of my favorite albums since first hearing it just four years ago, with slinky, sultry “Walking In The Rain” a perfect leadoff track.

My 1981 Playlist:

1984: Love Never Ends

Having recently read Michaelangelo Matos’ Can’t Slow Down, a thorough assessment of how 1984 was an especially important year for pop music, it’s an ideal time for me to post my own list of favorites from that year (also, it happens to be the most recent year I have yet to cover on this blog.)

Given that 1984 produced Purple Rain, Born In The USA, Private Dancer, Make It Big, Let It Be (Replacements, not The Beatles, naturally), Zen Arcade and This Is Spinal Tap (which I couldn’t resist including a track from here), I don’t need to further the argument for this year being special. Even beyond LPs, 1984 was flush with classic hit singles, from Chaka Khan’s transformative Prince cover to the beginning of Madonna’s world-conquering run to era-defining anthems by Thompson Twins and General Public to, well, “Weird Al” Yankovic capturing the zeitgeist with his so-obvious-it’s-almost-brilliant Michael Jackson parody.

As with any year, the stuff that missed Billboard entirely but lingered on in the collective unconscious is just as noteworthy. Nine years old at the time, I didn’t even hear these selections from The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, Bronski Beat, The Nails and Hoodoo Gurus until at least a decade later when I was a college student and the local Alternative Rock station aired their daily “Retro Flashback Lunch” hour dedicated to post-punk new wave gems.

However, it’s in the margins where ’84 truly fascinates. Billy Bragg’s electric but spare folk music sits next to Kirsty MacColl’s big pop cover of one of his songs. Rubber Rodeo reinterprets the Pretenders’ jumpy rock with a western twang. Cocteau Twins seem to beam out from their own planet with a sugary wall of sound and pleasantly indecipherable vocals. Everything But The Girl subsists on their own jazz-and-bossa-nova-suffused plane. XTC continues to make perfect pop music while defying nearly everything the rest of the world describes as such.

If I had to pick one song that obviously sums up the year, it’d be “Sexcrime (1984)” by the Eurythmics, but it’s not on Spotify so I’ll go with a sweet techno-pop movie theme (about a love triangle between a man, woman and computer!) from the lead singer of The Human League and the electronic music pioneer whom seven years before gave us Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”.

My 1984 playlist: