As part of every annual set of year-in-review entries, I remain one of six people nationwide who still prefers compact discs to digital. I don’t splurge too much because it’s increasingly tougher for new music to catch my ear as I grow older and more finicky, and as my favorite acts of yesteryear die, stop recording, or turn toward musical directions that take them beyond my zones of interest. That usually means missing out on what the majority loves, thus further dragging me down the long plummet into total irrelevance as chronicled on this very website a couple times per week.
As if to embrace that irrelevance, this year’s music entry is several months late because I let the necessary pre-writing verbiage in my head daunt me every time I approached it. But the qualifying CDs have been stacked on my desk all through 2022, waiting for this entry to materialize so that I can at long last file them with the other CDs and stop being dismissed as “clutter”. So let’s see if we can scale back my usual comfort logorrhea and the derivative hyper-hyphenated Chuck Eddy-isms of past countdowns, and sprint through this overdue receipt of my musical buying habits, which in sum might be as non-revelatory as ever, unless you count the never-addressed paradox of my frequent disdain for blatant nostalgia as a marketing hook juxtaposed against the indisputable demographic trivia that four of the five acts recounted below have been recording for over 25 years and the assorted band members’ average age is eligible for AARP junk mail. They’re also mostly white, which I’ll understand if you hold against me. It wasn’t on purpose. Bloc Party released a new album this past April, so expect the “CDs of 2022” entry to be slightly more diverse, and possibly less late. As always, depends on my mood.
Until then: the following list comprises all the CDs I acquired last year that were 2021 releases. Once New Year’s Day passed, three of the acts experienced traumas that add unplanned and unwelcome codas to their respective capsules. Those matters sucked to hear about, one far more deeply than the others. On with the countdown!
5. Mighty Mighty Bosstones, When God Was Great. The last band I ever saw live made a steady career of bringing listeners together into one mosh pit and skanking to the beat as one teeming, grinning mass. Their edge got ever edgier in later albums as American society likewise grimdarkened, culminating here in what might be their angriest screeds yet. Despite turning on an occasional lamp or two (e.g. the vain hope of “Long as I Can See the Light”), resigned surrenders like “I Don’t Believe in Anything” and the title track, which remembers how much nicer faith once made life feel, signify that Dicky Barrett is ticked and 2020 did nothing to cheer him up. Start with the George Floyd tribute “The Killing of Georgie (Part III)” (better dissected here) and work your way down the spiraling stairs.
Sonically not so new, ska-metal pogo-ing sounds same as ever despite swapping members every other album, which used to be a welcome reliable throwback until the jarring announcement this past January that the Bosstones are officially over. As if possessed with prescient awareness a la David Bowie’s Blackstar, their retroactive swan song is fittingly “The Final Parade”, featuring one big We-Are-the-World mash-up choir. I recognized the voices of Fishbone’s Angelo Moore and Rancid’s Tim Armstrong without anyone’s help, but a combination of fine-print liner notes and stubborn Googling also reveals old-old-old-schooler Stranger Cole as well as members of the Aquabats, Stiff Little Fingers, the Dropkick Murphys, Murphy’s Law, Flogging Molly, Less Than Jake, Goldfinger, the Suicide Machines, the Toasters, the Pietasters, the Interrupters, Madball, H2O, Kemuri, Big D and the Kids Table, Buck-O-Nine, Barrett’s own family, and more. Most of them don’t get solos, but if ya gotta go, might as well surround yourself with friends to lighten your mood before the plug gets pulled.
4. Brian Fallon, Night Divine. The most popular art trend of 2021 was “Here’s What I Made During Pandemic Lockdown”. In an era marked by helplessness and rage, the ex-Gaslight Anthem frontman from the school of “I’m a Christian and I’m a rocker but I’m not a Christian rocker” took refuge in an acoustic covers set — four Christmas carols (including my favorite and my wife’s favorite, though his takes are more delicately reverent than messiah-birthday-celebratory), five hymns, and a cover of “The Blessing”, a Christian-pop power ballad we’ve sung in church that, while invigorating in a group setting if you’re on that wavelength, proves hymn writers in centuries past were far more talented at writing distinct melodies and at basic song-naming. Even at 50 I don’t gravitate toward pulseless hushed tones or lullaby strums, but Fallon’s stripped-down renditions caution me there are times when we need still, small voices to keep us centered amid life’s cacophony, and the infinitely redone “Amazing Grace” in his hands, with one of the album’s few electric flourishes, becomes a conduit through which God speaks in the shimmering feedback fade-out.
3. They Might Be Giants, Book. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m peppier whenever my favorite quirky quintet assembles a cohesive new album like this one, as opposed to the frequent Dial-a-Song digital mixtapes and other frippery compilations whose contents were previously strung out across social media and don’t necessarily interlock with their disc-mates in a rewarding jigsaw-puzzle design. With Marty Beller’s strident opening drums and John Linnell’s low-pitched exhortation, the confidently vague “Synopsis for Latecomers” is the ideal Previously-on-TMBG proof-of-concept track for anyone who hasn’t immersed in their past oubliettes of oddities, and the rest of the power-pop pageant clicks exactly as you’d hope to hear from BFFs who resent 2020 distancing and truly mean to recapture the old magic. If you haven’t already been hooked on them since Tiny Toons or Malcolm in the Middle I don’t know what else to tell you except that, with cool music, unlike TV, you don’t have to catch up on the previous 35 years’ chapters before cuing up the latest.
As a fan since Flood I wish I could rank this higher, but I pettily deducted several dozen points for the inconsiderate CD case design. Clearly readable song titles are an absolute, non-negotiable must. Every anonymous song, even on the radio, even if I can spot the singer three notes in, is dead to me until and unless I learn its name. In this case the Book titles are printed only on the CD itself and nowhere else, which means I can’t check them while listening to the album in the car. I resorted to writing them on an index card and paper-clipping it to the inside front cover, because the CD case also has no pockets or plastic clips to hold it. I’ve only ever had to this for one other album — Sigur Rós’ nearly untitled (), which is basically an hour-long ice-cave dirge. This, I presume, is my punishment for not paying extra for the deluxe edition, which comes with a literal book, which would likewise be impossible to check for song titles while driving.
Pause here for thoughts and prayers in a particularly unkind moment in time, as earlier this week John Flansburgh was in a car wreck that hospitalized him with seven broken ribs and multiple fractures, which has disrupted their touring schedule for the next several weeks. TMBG is the only band I’ve ever seen more than once live, and it sucks that their post-COVID comeback has to suffer this shocking setback. Get well soon, Mr. Flansy, sir.
2. Wesley Stace, Late Style. John Wesley Harding got old and gray, but he’s kept his wits far better than some of us. 32 years after Here Comes the Groom introduced the sardonic folk-rocker to us OG 120 Minutes fans, Harding/Stace unstraps the guitar and pivots to lounge music, a move once pulled by his formerly blatant influence Elvis Costello. For Stace/Harding (Starding?) it feels less like a numbing appeal to Branson tourists and more like a graceful tribute to the sounds of the Mad Men era, if not their repugnant sins. “Where the Bands Are” could open a deceptively feel-good NYC rom-com; “Hey! Director” filters a breakup through Hollywood metaphors yet casts the filmmaker as the baddie; but matters turn heavier with the ironic downtown-basement blues of “Do Nothing If You Can”, a serenade from the little Impostor Syndrome devil on your shoulder who loves telling you how very little your contributions affect the timestream.
As always, Harding shines most brightly when he has targets to aim for. The jaunty “Come Back Yesterday” chastises self-styled morality persecutors with hollow souls (“A man who believes in nothing wears any clothes that fit”) who thrill to their own finger-pointing (“‘Ask but don’t tell,’ you said while you’re cruising”), while the more direct polemic “Well Done Everyone” condescends toward knee-jerk debaters satisfied with our atrophying Earth as if humanity doesn’t need it to keep existing while the Lord tarries, not to mention a certain American voting majority (“We thought a madman might be fun / Well done, everyone!”). An entire album’s worth of scorn might be a bit repetitive (Twitter doomscrolling plus a beat is no longer my idea of a good time), but the sincerity in other tracks bring balance, which is a thing we olds prize more than we should. All taken, this album could’ve ranked first if not for the cover sketch that reminds longtime followers they’re also getting older and grayer, a truth which feels rather mean and unfair even if that wasn’t the point. Sometimes candor cuts us more deeply even the parts that weren’t mean to.
1. Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight. This might seem a more predictable choice if their last two albums had rung my bell harder, so I was elated to feel this as my pick for #1 long before Taylor Hawkins died in March, a mere thirty-six days after his 50th birthday. Lord willing, I’ll match and surpass his lifespan in two weeks, wich feels wrong. There’s a lot to unpack in how this ridiculously procrastinated countdown was pushed back even farther after his passing, but I’ve already lied to myself about this being a quick entry, so I’ll leave some of that packed for now and soften the lie.
But for the record: my favorite bands are the ones who let the drummer bring the thunder and don’t let producers replace their snare-heads with macrame cozies so the beats won’t wake the baby. Dave Grohl is of course generally awesome, but the Foo bangers I replay the most are the ones that invite Hawkins up to the front line at top volume. (Every time Hawkins strides in and unleashes Hell in “The Pretender”, the voices in my head all pump their tiny fists. And they never agree on anything.) Hawkins is no less emphatic here, charging ahead full steam from start to finish, particularly in the closing “Love Dies Young”, which…wow, that hurts to type now.
Pause for deep breath. ANYWAY…
Medicine was planned for release in early 2020 to coincide with their next tour, then shelved for a full year until everyone got house-happy and the vaccines brought hope of dawn’s return. The 21st-century production touches distract me here and there (love the “Adult Education” wood-knocks in “Shame Shame”, but I can’t with the Creed-y violins and the whimsical soap-ad string-plucking), but at a lean nine tracks — just like the AOR era, when RAWK vinyl-fillers rarely stayed sober long enough to reach the 35-minute mark — it’s a powerhouse assortment on every level.
Best of Show remains the lead single “Waiting on a War”, which Grohl wrote after a chat with his daughter revealed that ’80s nuclear-Armageddon fear has made a comeback for a new generation. (This would be a full two years or more before Ukraine, mind you.) At first listen my mind didn’t drift to that precarious state we kids lived under through much of the Reagan/Gorbachev decade. Rather, I heard its implied, indignant condemnation of the ruling-class males for whom war is their overlord, their mistress, and their financial planner. Not just those who buy and sell physical violence in all sizes from personal to nation-sized, but broadened to include those who prosper and thrive as they perpetuate war in all its forms, not least of which has been the so-called “culture war”, which has gone about as well as the U.S. drug war except most of the countless casualties have been spiritual. Led by conflict disciples who think the Bible is just a two-page pamphlet called “So You’re Warring Your Way to Heaven” with Jesus roundhouse-kicking the money changers, Paul advertising Dungeons & Dragons equipment, and…that’s it, that’s their whole Even Newer Testament, small enough to forget in their back pocket until it comes out of the washer ragged and unreadable. Like they were gonna give it a second glance anyway.
“Waiting on a War” likewise has swelling strings, which I was just complaining about, but this time they’re an emboldened brigade following the charge of Hawkins’ crescendoing antiwar drums that in turn herald the arrival of furious father Grohl to the field. In hindsight you can almost imagine him approaching the band on horseback and whispering, “For Taylor!” before screaming and leading the anthem into the fray, onward and upward toward a hopefully brighter, less frightening future. If only.
…and that’s the chart.
Special shout-out for three CDs of re-released materials, all worth checking out if you don’t already own their contents:
- A 30th-anniversary reissue of Why Do Birds Sing?, the first Violent Femmes album I ever bought. Its lead-off “American Music” was one of those songs I had to hear again and again and again and again. Now I can pass my old cassette copy on to another loving home. Also comes with a live disc of past hits, not quite the same set list they used when I saw them live back in ’94. P.S.: They are now also elderly.
- I haven’t kept up with the many ways in which Taylor Swift spent her lockdown free time securing her musical legacy and entertaining legions in these dark times, but I found an entry point to reconnect. Once upon a time in 2013 I chanced into some forgetful stranger’s burner copy of Red, which was a fine album but impaired by its lack of packaging and song titles. Once her ongoing chronological re-recording spree reached it, I was more than happy to buy the fully authorized Red (Taylor’s Version), featuring the hit singles “I Knew You Were Trouble (Taylor’s Version)”, All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”, and my fave, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Taylor’s Version)”. The disc of bonus material adds even more value (and the video for “I Bet You Think About Me” and its use of Miles Teller is priceless), but once again a CD case vexes this myopic proto-geezer. I get the legal necessity of all those “(Taylor’s Version)” rubber stamps, but please, dear graphic designers, never ever put fine print in red font on a black background, I am begging you.
- Say what you will about the questionable life choices of Chris Pratt, the world’s dullest dinosaur fighter, but once upon a time Parks & Rec made use of the youngster’s strengths. At last the complete Mouse Rat oeuvre has been crammed together into The Awesome Album, not quite enough for an entire boxed set. Comedy tunes alternate with needlessly sincere covers, some never played in full on the show and others less than a minute long. But if you’re interested in a Jeff Tweedy bonus track (“Pickled Ginger”) or if like me you still tear up every time you remember “5000 Candles in the Wind”, this one’s for you.
Final section: best new songs I heard in 2021 from albums I didn’t buy till the following year:
…okay, now we’re done. Thanks for reading! Lord willing, see you next year, hopefully in a more timely manner and with fewer tears.