I always feel like I should write some sort of profound and reflective intro for my year-end mix because, well, it’s a year-end mix. And what are the ends of years if not times for reflection on the last 12 months. But such reflections feel rather silly in these post-but-not-really-post-pandemic years, because what, really, have we learned?
So I’m going to skip that. We all know that 2022 was filled with terrible and stupid things: war and rising global tensions, political division and dishonesty, injustice and corruption, abuses of power, fragile billionaire egos… the list goes on. I don’t want to dismiss or trivialize any of those things, which have impacted innumerable lives in so many ways. But I do take comfort in the fact that despite it all, music remains, offering grace and beauty to a broken world.
With that thought in mind, these are the songs that excited, intrigued, comforted, inspired, and delighted me the most throughout 2022. They stuck with me through thick and thin and I returned to them day after day, week after week, month after month.
Songs are listed by artist in alphabetical order.
Here’s one thing to keep in mind while listening to “Static Iridescence.” Like all of the songs on Antarctic Wastelands’ Mysteries, it doesn’t even cross the four-minute mark. And if you know me, you know I like my ambient soundscapes to be expansive and unbound by time. But here’s the thing: “Static Iridescence” may only be three minutes and change, but Ben Tatlow knows how to layer and develop his soundscapes in a way that feels much more vast than his songs’ runtimes might suggest. What’s more, the song’s brevity imbues with a fragility that makes its darkly dreamy atmospherics all the more beguiling.
Recorded as part of Ambientologist’s Sustain series, this collaboration between Hong Kong-based Ben Tatlow and London’s Fionnlagh is one of the compilation’s darkest moments. The rumbling drones and forlorn tones conjure up mental images of a desolate wasteland stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s a disconcerting listen, but also spellbinding and transportive as only the best dark ambient can be.
If you’re not careful, you might injure your neck while listening to this slab of blackgaze from Japan. From headbanging, sure, but also from whiplash caused by the band’s constant change-ups. The quartet’s music features the usual My Bloody Valentine-esque walls of sound, blast beats, and throat-rending shrieks that you’d expect from blackgazers, but there are passages that evoke Joe Hisaishi’s Studio Ghibli soundtracks and even some spoken word for good measure. You never know what’s going to happen next in an Asunojokei song, which is precisely what makes them so exhilarating.
Ben Holton has made a career out of producing dreamy, nostalgia-laden music via such projects as Birds In the Brickwork and My Autumn Empire, and as one-half of Epic45. His latest project, The Balloonist, is billed as “a lost TV or film soundtrack from the 70s,” and “Seen From Paths” fully sells that aesthetic with its shimmering synths and glittering guitars, all of which evoke distant childhood memories.
Michael Beharie’s breezy pop shares some similarities with Sufjan Stevens, such as breathy vocals, eclectic instrumentation (Peruvian lutes and whatnot), and exquisite arrangements. But there’s also a swing and grooviness that brings to mind Club 8, one of Sweden’s finest purveyors of pop music. In other words, “Lolo” is a fine example of how pop music can be so much bigger, broader, weirder, and more delightful and interesting than what’s often played on the radio.
Should you ever find yourself in the strange and unlikely position of needing to state the Platonic ideal of a dreampop/shoegazer song, then might I suggest The Churchhill Garden’s “Always There”? The duo’s single is chock full of guitars that shimmer and sparkle, while Krissy Vanderwoude’s harmonies are angelic in all the right ways. As for the song’s dreamy, romantic lyrics — “You’re such a beautiful human/Like a work of art” — they’re the icing on the cake, and perfectly in-line with the song’s effervescent tone.
The spirit of early ’90s Madchester is alive and well in this new single from post-punk outfit Cold Showers. Whereas the band’s previous releases, like 2015’s Plantlife EP, were replete with gloriously gloomy synths and brittle guitars, “How Do You Know This Love” is filled with dancehouse beats, shaggy guitar licks, and yearning vocals — the result of the band leaving Los Angeles and setting up camp in the Joshua Tree desert to record something looser and more upbeat. I still love the band’s earlier post-punk, but I dig this new direction, too.
Over the years, Fine China have proven themselves to be masters of crafting catchy indie-pop that pays homage to all of the right influences (e.g., New Order, The Smiths) without every feeling slavishly indebted to them. But for 2022’s Trees and Night EP, bandleader Rob Withem moves away from the catchy melodies, jangly guitars, and snappy beats, and instead, opts for something more ambient and New Age-y. The resulting sound might take some fans aback, but “Eyes at Night” represents some fascinating evolution and experimentation, and leaves me even more excited for wherever the band goes next.
Led by singer/guitarist Lindsay Minton, Houston’s football, etc. excel at the sort of ultra-earnest indie/emo that takes you right back to the early-to-mid ’00s. There’s nothing revolutionary about the trio’s mix of churning guitars, emotional build-ups, and pounding drums — and that’s precisely why it’s so good. You don’t need to be groundbreaking when you’re this stable and confident.
I’ve been a sucker for Illuvia’s blend of atmospheric jungle ever since last year’s Iridescence of Clouds. This year, Ludvig Cimbrelius released Iridescence of Clouds (Sea of Vapor), a companion album that continued to expand upon his ethereal sound. “Source of Serenity” is full of skittering beats and impossible-to-trace rhythms, but they’re set against lush pads of sound that evoke tropical rains and oceanic vistas at sunset. As befitting the title, the overarching mood here is one of peace and contemplation.
Can you think of a better musical pairing than Khruangbin and Leon Bridges? ‘Cause I surely can’t. The former bring the funk, with glassy smooth guitar licks and rock-solid rhythms, while the latter brings the soulful vocals. When Bridges sings “Maybe I’Il write a letter from this little old country town/Down in Texas/I’lI keep it here for you” while backed by Mark Speer’s dextrous riffs, it’s as sublime and moving as it is groovy.
Following the release of 2013’s Minor Lives, Gary Murray set aside music to care for his disabled parents and focus on painting. But after his mother’s death in 2020, Murray began working on music again, and finished work on Monkeys & Spoons the day his father died. Not surprisingly, LN’s first album in almost a decade is a moody and somber affair; the specter of mortality looms over the entire album. But it’s never maudlin. When Murray sings about those “nights when you’re afraid,” his rich baritone backed by reverbed guitars and shimmering ambience, you keenly feel the weariness and sorrow in each and every word.
I’m really loving this resurgence that Lycia has experienced in recent years. Led by Mike VanPortfleet, Lycia has been one of America’s pre-eminent darkwave bands for decades now. But their recent efforts have been anything but staid. “Simpler Times” is, dare I say, dance-y, with VanPortfleet’s chilled whisper weaving its way through pulsing beats, chilled synths, and spectral guitars. You can practically see all of the goths, young and old, swaying to the beat out there on the dancefloor.
Macross 82 – 99’s Alberto Muñoz Calderon has been churning out delightful anime-tinted future funk for almost a decade now, going all the way back to 2013’s Sailorwave. “Let It Be Real,” featuring vocalist Emi Aramaki, is one of his catchiest singles to date. Clocking in at less than three minutes, its sparkly disco vibe is over far too soon; you want it to go all night long.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it… Ronnie Martin is one of our great pop songwriters. Unfortunately, too many dismiss his extensive catalog because of his love for analog synthesizers, fey vocals, and cryptic lyrics. “Snow Like Wool” won’t do anything to change that perception: Martin’s Moog conjures up wintry wonderlands, his voice is as dreamy as ever, and his evocative lyrics draw directly from Psalm 147. But to these ears, this is an absolutely immaculate song that spins ancient wisdom into something magical and otherworldly.
After a too-long hiatus, Michael Grace and My Favorite returned with another collection of immaculate pop songs about angst, heartbreak, and disaffected youth. Clocking in at over eight minutes, “Dean’s 7th Dream” might be the group’s most ambitious song ever, blending the group’s ’80s-influenced melodies with synthwave textures and Kirk Douglass’ (The Roots) blazing riffs. Really, though, it’s all about Grace’s lyrics. When he croons “If I could surf the black tide/That’s drowning me from the inside/I’d stagger away, with a streetwalker’s pride,” I’m all in.
Sweden’s Oh Hiroshima cam play post-rock with the best of them, with slow-burning builds replete with churning guitars and crescendoing drums. “Ascension” benefits from Jakob Hemström’s yearning vocals, which add some additional heft to the song as it builds, like a thunderstorm, over the course of nearly six minutes to an inevitable, and deeply satisfying, climax.
You’d think that by now, David Bazan’s schtick — open and honest confessionals drawing from his life and religious (un)belief — would be getting a little long in the tooth. But his revival of the beloved Pedro the Lion brought some new energy to the mix. “Old Wisdom” finds Bazan tackling one of his favorite targets since day one — harsh religious authority — with lyrics that are as poignant as they are pointed. (The opening lines about being left behind will resonate with anyone raised with Rapture theology.) But it’s a testament to Bazan’s storytelling that he presents no illusions about leaving the faith; abandoning long-held beliefs comes with undeniable costs.
Steve Roach has been crafting otherworldly soundscapes for four decades. (His first album, Now, was released in 1982.) Released earlier this year, What Remains serves as an overview of sorts of the various styles that Roach has experimented with, from Berlin school to tribal ambient. But the album’s title track dives into the style that I like best, and for which Roach is arguably best known: deep wells of sound and pure atmospheric drift. Spanning fifteen minutes, “What Remains” is a masterclass in serene, contemplative ambience delivered by one of the genre’s true masters.
The enigmatic UK music collective dropped not one, not two, but six releases in 2022, and all of them found the ensemble expanding their sound in various ways. On AIIR, they delved into Steve Reich-esque arrangements, choral ensembles, and snippets of folk music that sound like they came drifting in from a Chinese rice paddy. This is maximalist music to be sure, and on a song like “4am,” the results are spellbinding.
Nearly ten years have passed between 2013’s Somewhere Else and this year’s Sad Cities, but that doesn’t really matter; Sally Shapiro’s retro italo disco has always had a timeless feel about it. “Love In Slow Motion” captures everything there is to love about Shapiro’s music: her awkward coo of a voice, beautifully mopey lyrics (“Am I crying?/I don’t know/But I’m trying/To let you go”), Johan Agebjörn’s immaculate production. The result is four-and-a-half minutes of elegant melancholy, delivered as effortlessly as a gentle breeze.
I once compared Shearwater’s music to that of Talk Talk, a comparison I don’t make lightly. Both bands feature a singular vision, an emotive and poetic frontman, and a resolute sense of atmosphere and tension. “Xenarthran” (which takes its name from the family of animals that includes anteaters and armadillos) is filled with all manner of amazing sonic elements, from sweeping strings and field recordings to twinkling electronics. Meanwhile, Jonathan Meiburg’s sings cryptic lyrics in that mellifluous voice of his. “Xenarthran” held me absolutely spellbound the first time I heard it, and months later, it still does.
Although David Ralicke has played saxophone and trombone for the likes of All Saints, Beck, The Jayhawks, Ziggy Marley, and Morrissey, his own material — recorded under the Space Between Clouds moniker — delves into the same deep, expansive, and intimate atmospherics as those explored by Harold Budd and Ryuichi Sakamoto. His breathy trumpet drifts, Arve Henriksen-like, over drowsy, sleepwalking ambient textures, blurring the lines between jazz, ambient, and electronic music.
Coming after a chaotic period in Kennedy Ashlyn’s life during which she was diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder, “Abyss” is an epic in the very best sense of the word. Backed by swooning strings and Twin Peaks-esque guitars, Ashlyn sings of sinking into the titular abyss and hitting rock bottom (“I don’t know why my soul disappeared”), only to land in a place of hope and healing. This song consistently reduces me to tears. I am, by no means, glad that Ashlyn has experienced despair and trauma in her life. I am, however, very thankful that she’s found way to take those things and turn them into something truly beautiful.
Inspired by classic “Berlin School” artists like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, Martin Stürtzer’s ambient music is designed to take the listener on an interstellar journey. With its deep bass tones, pulsing beats, slightly ominous atmospherics, and reverberating synth textures, “Pulsart Artefact” isn’t just ambient dub techno of the highest quality — though it is that. It’s also an invitation to imagine and explore the deepest reaches of space. In other words, the perfect sonic escape should you ever feel a little trapped and overwhelmed by the world’s ills.
Even at its most quiet and hushed, Rosie Thomas’ voice remains an instrument of rich and deep beauty. So it should come as no surprise that her cover of one of Björk’s greatest songs is simply gorgeous. And even better, she’s joined by a veritable “who’s who” of indie artists on the song’s choral backdrop, including Sufjan Stevens, The Shins, Iron & Wine, Audrey Assad, Denison Witmer, Leigh Nash, and Beau Jennings. It’s one of those covers that, in hindsight, seems like it was always meant to be.
As I write this, the temperature in Lincoln, NE is -7 degrees and windy. I enjoy the winter, but even that’s a little too cold for my blood. So to warm things up, I turn to Sven Wunder, that Swedish genius who weaves together jazz, bossa nova, psychedelia, and modern classical with uncanny skill. As its title suggests, “Sun-Kissed” conjures up sun-drenched climates with its trilling flutes, trippy sitar, and celebratory horn arrangements. Put this on and see if the temperature doesn’t increase by a few degrees, if only because of your own movin’ and groovin’.
I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that contains most of the above songs.
What were some of your favorite songs of 2022? Which songs helped you make better sense of the last twelve months? Let’s discover some new music together.