Michael O’Brien ‘23
Although the year isn’t over yet, the passing of October 31st signifies an important date for music nerds that use Spotify like myself. The streaming service’s annual Wrapped installment, which shows who and what you listened to for how long over the year, is only calculated using the months January-October. While we eagerly await to see our lists of most listened to songs and artists from this year, let’s take a look at some of the albums that made 2022 fantastic for music.
3. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers by Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar fans know the expression “patience is a virtue” all too well. After releasing his critically acclaimed album DAMN. in 2017, Lamar essentially went into a reclusive state musically, save for the occasional feature and curation of the Black Panther soundtrack in 2018. Five years later, the greatest rapper of our generation returned in a triumphant way, releasing the ultra-personal Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers in May. Musically and lyrically, it’s Kendrick’s most ambitious album yet. Largely lacking the bass-banging qualities of some of Lamar’s signature songs like “DNA” or “m.A.A.d City,” Mr. Morale instead favors intimate arrangements for many of the songs such as “United in Grief” and “Crown,” featuring Lamar playing the piano, something he likewise did at live shows on tour in support of the album. This isn’t to say that Kendrick hasn’t given up on his older sound, as the album still contains upbeat thrillers such as the COVID-centric reflection of “N95.” While Kendrick has always experimented with his production ranging from the sparkling jazz fusion present on To Pimp a Butterfly to more hypnotic lo-fi sounds on Section.80, strong lyricism and storytelling has been a consistent feature of Lamar’s music. Past songs such as “FEAR.” and “How Much a Dollar Cost” (which was President Obama’s favorite song in 2015) have showcased Lamar’s prowess for writing powerful lyrics. Mr. Morale takes this to another level as Kendrick opens up like he never has before. “I went and got me a therapist/I can debate on my theories and sharing it/Consolidate all my comparisons/Humblin’ up because time was imperative/Started to feel like it’s only one answer to everything, I don’t know where it is,” Lamar tells the listener on “United in Grief.” This kind of vulnerability is present throughout the length of the album, from tackling cycles of abuse and alcoholism on “Mother I Sober” to grappling with his relationship with his father on the aptly titled “Father Time.” The gravity of the lyrics are heavy at times, but the payoff is powerful; we’re being given a direct look into the mind and soul of a man who has come out on the other side of so much trauma and pain to defy the odds and become one of the most successful artists of the last decade plus. “They all greedy, I don’t care for no public speaking/And they like to wonder where I’ve been/Protecting my soul in the valley of silence,” Lamar raps on the track “Savior,” which reiterates that he’s been working on himself for the last five years and that he’s not the Messiah figure the rap game has been seeking since the passing of Tupac Shakur; but it sure feels like that at times.
2. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You by Big Thief
Mouthful of a title, right? That’s just a peek into the scope of Big Thief’s masterful album, which runs for a whopping 80 minutes. While it’s long enough to be a short movie, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You doesn’t feel that way because of how enjoyable nearly all of its tracks are. Big Thief have been on a run unmatched by nearly any of their alternative rock contemporaries; their last four albums have accumulated an average score of 8.9/10 on the reliable music criticism outlet Pitchfork, and Dragon New Warm Mountain represents the band at the height of their powers. The opening track on the album, “Change,” essentially buckles the listener in for the experience they’re about to embark on, with lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s first words on the record asking “OK?” Whether she’s asking her bandmates if they’re ready to go or asking the listener if she has their attention, the music simply takes over from here. “Would you live forever, never die/While everything around passes?/Would you smile forever, never cry/While everything you know passes?” Lenker asks on the same song. This meditation on the passing of time paired with beautiful, wispy guitar chords and the gentle brushing of drums was enough to fully grab my attention on first listen. From here, the album’s sprawl is unpredictable and wonderful all at once, never revealing where it’s going from track to track. Perhaps my favorite pair of tracks lined up one after the other is when the record goes from “Spud Infinity” to “Certainty.” “Spud Infinity” is a downright backcountry banger of a song that features banjos and jaw harps, whose lyrics try to make sense of the grandiosity of infinity and self-image through metaphors about potatoes. No, I’m not kidding; “When I say celestial/I mean extraterrestrial/I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart/When I say heart I mean finish/The last one there is a potato knish/Baking too long in the sun of spud infinity/When I say infinity, I mean now/Kiss the one you are right now,” Lenker sings over an instrumental that sounds like it could belong on the Deliverance soundtrack. Immediately from there, Lenker brushes off her pondering of the cosmos and tubers and instead highlights her enjoyment of the little things that make relationships worth having on “Certainty” like plane rides and watching TV together; “My certainty is wild, weaving/For you, I am a child, believing/You lay beside me sleeping on a plane
In the future/Sit on the phone, watch TV/Romance, action, mystery,” Lenker croons. And this is just one moment of wonderful contrast on the album; there’s 18 other tracks on the thing. I was fortunate to see the band perform at King’s Theater in Brooklyn, the band’s hometown, and Lenker’s stage presence was one of timidity in the moments between the music. Her songwriting ability and musicianship could not be more different though. At this moment, she could confidently write a song about anything she wanted, and it would be great.
- Florist by Florist
Recently, I’ve been reminded of the power of nature in a lot of ways. Whether it’s been going to Walden Pond with my Thoreau class or spending time in Vermont over the summer, nature is such a difficult thing to make sense of and how we define our relationship with it and each other as humans. These motifs are all present on Florist’s self-titled masterpiece, a fully realized contemplation on the natural world, the cycle of life, love, and so much more. Emily Sprague and her bandmates rented a house in the Hudson Valley to record this album, capturing some of the sounds they heard and sprinkling it throughout the album. At any given time on the record, there are instrumental moments where crickets can be heard chirping or a peaceful storm starts brewing out of nowhere. The album captures the essence of what it means to let nature do the work. It’s not something that we always have to make sense of. But, it doesn’t help to tap into nature in such a way that poignant lyricism flows as naturally as a river, which is exactly what this album achieves. Just moments into the first track with lyrics, Sprague sings “There is a winter morning you didn’t know me yet/It probably was snowing, I wonder what was said/Of the days quickly going to what will come ahead/I don’t know if I can ever love someone like that/Like that/You took her to the hospital and put her in the bed/I can only think about that day and what it meant/When the doctor came out and said, ‘you have a daughter now.’” Relating the imagery of her own birth to a snowy March morning, Sprague establishes herself as an extremely gifted songwriter from the get go. The touching lyrics only have more emotional weight when the listener discovers that Sprague’s mother passed away suddenly earlier this year. Choosing to eulogize her mother through the miracle of her own birth is nothing short of flooring. While somber, Sprague does not drown herself in her sadness, with plenty of moments where she discovers what it means to love as a healthy way of moving on. Returning to the flowing nature of Florist’s music, Sprague hones in on her fluid way of looking at the world on the track “Sci-fi Silence;” “I found what it means to be moving on/Coming from the thing I knew as love/It comes to me like silver in a stream/A conversation waiting for the wake/Then silence, sci-fi silence.” While loss is a theme that appears all throughout the record, it’s moments like this where Sprague is able to look into the stream of life and find herself drowning, but pulls herself out when she realizes that love is able to cure all. She’s also not afraid to admit she had to look past herself in order to find that sense of self amidst tragedy; “Homegrown laughter/And a movie star smile/Taught me how to see/The pain and joy in this life,” she sings of her lover on “Two Ways.” This is the sort of record that helps us make sense of some of the truths of the world; that nature is perhaps the most awe-inspiring thing we have in this world, and that we are stronger than we think in the face of sadness.
Photo courtesy of florist.bandcamp.com