A CLOSER LISTEN weekly #23
ACL 2022: Year in Review
Dear Listeners, another year is coming to a close, and that means its List Season. Joseph again. I’m always catching up on the many records in the queue, but have already discovered a few gems from lists already posted. I’ll be sharing my own Sound Propositions year in review in early January, so I’ll keep this preamble to a minimum. Breaking from our usual format, this edition will focus exclusively on the first wave of our end of year lists. As always, our lists are drawn from records we’ve reviewed throughout the year, as chosen and voted by our entire team. With that, let’s turn to Rev. Rich.
The pandemic eased and war began. Inflation rose and politicians argued. And all the while, the planet continued to warm. Music was an anchor in a turbulent time ~ whether directing our attention to important matters, entertaining us or offering us moments of peace.
2022’s lead story ~ the war in Ukraine ~ is also the lead story on our site. Thanks to Gianmarco del Re’s ongoing series Ukrainian Field Notes, our readers have had an ongoing, real-time window into the situation there, as well as an in-depth look at how artists respond to crisis. We have been astounded, inspired and moved by the nation’s resilience and the diversity of music produced under fire. Global artists have also rallied to the cause, producing a remarkable array of benefit albums. There is so much quality music coming from and for Ukraine that we could fill a whole site with it. Our cover image comes from the exhibition Wonderbirds of Mariya Prymachenko.
Our site’s second biggest story is the rejuvenation of our staff roster. A Closer Listen quietly turned 10 last December, and will soon “go up to 11.” Many of our original writers have entered new life phases, taking on new jobs and starting families. For the first time, we issued an invitation to new writers; five made it through our strenuous audition process. In addition to Gianmarco (from Italy), we are proud to welcome Garreth Brooke (Frankfurt), Peter Tracy (Seattle U.S.), Jennifer Smart (Chicago U.S.), Maya Merberg (Spain) and Maria Papadomanolaki (Greece), increasing our global reach, which also includes writers in Canada, Mexico and the U.K.
The musical landscape continued to change in rapid and often disconcerting ways. While vinyl continues to be as popular as production delays are long, many of our favorite albums were never released in any physical format, a trend perhaps less upsetting to millennials than it is to long-time collectors. And since many albums are not available in digital form, there’s no way to amass a collection in a single format. But some found new ways to repurpose old records; the image above is taken from ChloeCarlinCreates on Etsy.
The pandemic also pushed the global populace to nostalgia, apparent in the popularity of catalog songs on the iTunes Charts and the retro leanings of new music. It’s not all old, of course; we’ve reviewed plenty of original, daring artists on our site this year. But the more people turn to songs they already know, the less room there is in their ears for new music, even from favorite artists. This is bound to change at some point, but for now it means it’s harder than ever for new music to break through. This is where we come in ~ we received over 5000 instrumental and experimental submissions this year, listened to at least part of every one, and chose one each day to review. Want to hear more? Visit our Upcoming Releases page, peruse our seasonal previews, and follow the links on our More Music Sites page.
As of this writing, apart from Ukrainian Field Notes, our most popular posts of the year were The 40 Best Winter Albums of All Time, How to Get Noticed in 2022, The 25 Best Summer Albums of All Time and The 40 Best Compilation Albums of All Time. Our readers love lists! Our most read artist reviews: Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Víkingur Ólafsson and Mari Samuelsen, which suggests that our readers also love modern composition and Iceland.
Our year-end lists: seven specialty lists, followed by seven genre lists, followed by our overall Top 20. This is our favorite time of year, as we begin to put the year’s music in perspective. We hope you’ll join us daily to see what we’ve chosen! We wish our faithful readers a meaningful and joyous December ~ thank you for being part of our musical community! (Richard Allen)
ACL 2022 ~ The Year’s Best Album Covers
Physical albums have never been harder to find. So why are album covers more important than ever? The answer is simple: people shop for music online, and the first thing they see is the image. While few people have the time and inclination to play the hundreds of albums released each week, it’s easy to scroll through hundreds of images. Sure, you can’t tell an album by its cover, but you can tell if someone has put thought and effort into the process. If the art is good, then the music may be as well. The ten albums we’ve selected match memorable art with compelling music to form a complete package ~ even if there’s no package! And although a picture is worth a thousand words, we’ve reached out to labels, artists and composers to add a few words of their own as well.
ACL 2022 ~ The Year’s Best Music Videos
Music videos may have migrated from TV to Vimeo and YouTube, but the industry is still going strong. These short form art works are a perfect place for new creators to make a splash and for seasoned professionals to experiment. While the primary intent of most music videos is to draw attention to a composer’s release, some do even more for the director. Others fit the definition of music video while not being tagged as such. One such gem is Disney+/Studio Ghibli’s “Zen – Grogu and Dust Bunnies,” which we’re not allowed to share for copyright reasons, but that we include in our Top Ten. These are the nine we can share from 2022: treasures for the eyes and ears.
Read the list.
ACL 2022 ~ The Year’s Best Winter Music
December is the beginning of winter music season ~ not holiday music, but seasonal music, a soundtrack to the ice and snow. The music sounds fitting all the way through the new year, as the temperatures plummet, the wind howls, and people imagine polar explorers on the top and bottom of the world.
Earlier this year, we updated and expanded our most popular post, The 25 Best Winter Albums of All Time ~ now The 40 Best Winter Albums of All Time! As new winter music is always being released, this annual mini-chart serves as an addendum to that list. Some of these releases may eventually join that all-time roster. Five of the releases on this list were reviewed on our site earlier this year, and five are new, collected it in one place for your listening pleasure.
Our cover image comes from Frances Castle, and is available as part of a Seasonal Greetings postcard set based on the artwork for Cate Brooks’ Winterfest, listed directly below.
ACL 2022 ~ The Happiest Music of the Year
The world had another hard year in 2022, and it’s sometimes hard to see hope on the horizon. As we fight our battles, we need the nourishment of happy music that is positive without being saccharine. One common theme below is that happiness can be hard-earned, but can also be found in the simple pleasures of life. We can still be surprised by joy.
Just as happiness comes in all forms, from peaceful contentment to joyful exuberance, the music we’ve chosen reflects this variety. Four of our seven main genres are represented, underlining the fact that no genre has a monopoly on joy; whatever your musical pleasure, we hope that you are buoyed by the happy music on this list.
Read the list.
ACL 2022 ~ The Year’s Best Film Scores
2022 was a particularly good year for film scores, continuing a resurgence from the paucity of the pandemic years. We’ve chosen an eclectic list this year, including a score that was just made available for a film released in 2018, a new score for a hundred-year-old movie, two scores from popular films and the rest from less publicized Indies. Five were featured on our site earlier this year, while the others are all introduced here. The films range from documentary to drama to horror, while the artists include a post-rock band trying their hand at modern composition and a saxophonist without his sax. Some people go to the movies for the writing, acting or cinematography; we go with an ear to sound, and this is the best of what we heard in 2022.
ACL 2022 ~ The Year’s Best Labels
While many music labels impressed us this year, few had to deal with invasion and war. Our Label of the Year is Ukraine’s Corridor Audio, a shining example of grace under fire.
In retrospect, it seems scary to recall that Corridor Audio’s first release, a transparent 10″ record from Stanislav Tolkichev, was entitled The Last Day. Few labels have had to face the challenges that Corridor Audio ~ and other labels from Ukraine ~ have faced this year. How can we record this music? Is there any way to distribute it? Are my artists alive? Is there any way to reach them? And most crucially, what is the role of music in a time of crisis?
Label owner Tymur Samarskyi aka Splinter (UA) has continued to release music as the war has raged, including what is arguably the best compilation of Ukrainian music to come from Ukraine this year, We Are Invincible. The sheer number of benefit compilations this year has been overwhelming, but those looking for a place to start should begin here. The tracks were recorded just before the invasion, the album released just after.
Read the list.
*Press A* 2022 ~ The Year’s Best Videogame Soundtracks
This year, the soundtrack world reflected the videogame industry’s predilection for safe(r) bets, with almost half of our list consisting of sequels. But it also pointed at a more established, regularized field in which house names such as Olivier Deriviere, Joris de Man or Amos Roddy make an appearance once again, having featured in past *Press A* best-of lists. Nonetheless, we were surprised by a few contributions from newcomers and crossover artists who are still pushing the format forward, and who brought their unique trajectories to bear upon the styles of videogame music (VGM) we all know and love.
It also feels like we are finally leaving the 2010s behind: this is our very first list in which the ‘Retro’ category does not figure at all. Synthwave soundtracks peaked with Katana ZERO, and there have been no stand-outs since. To be honest, it is a welcome development, though we expect the genre to come back at some point ~ hopefully with an innovative, spearhead work of art.
As VGM has gotten more popular ~ evidenced by its recognition as a new category at the Grammys this year ~ budgets have also increased considerably. The predominance of the ‘Modern Composition’ category in this year’s list is indicative of this ~ studios are investing more in orchestras, grand arrangements and international collaborations between composers. A few weeks back, Deriviere detonated a polemic on Twitter around ‘real’ versus ‘electronic’ orchestral sounds. Such a conversation would not have happened the way it did even three or four years ago, when only the largest studios could invest in an orchestral soundtrack. Our only addition to the discussion would be that, indeed, there were more fully orchestral works this year than in the past few. We sincerely hope that regardless of this panorama, indies and small productions continue to flourish, because, for the most part, those tend to produce the truly newest works of art.
A final note: We’re extensive but we can’t possibly cover everything. We’d love to know which of the smaller soundtracks captivated you this year!
And now, by genre and in alphabetical order, we present the *Press A* best videogame soundtracks of 2022!
IN TWO WEEKS, we’ll have our seven category lists and the best 20. Until then, Happy Holidays. Peace!