Well, it looks as though 2022 has already slipped through my fingers, because this post is already so last year. Sorry about that—I try to prioritize making a post the best it can be over its timing, but I think my philosophy should probably be closer to “quality before quantity, except after consistency,” because the time for resolutions has already wrapped.
Speaking of Wrapped, wrapping season has long since passed over at Spotify. Even their indie, small-town competitor, Apple Music, has its own original spin on this New Year’s stats sheet with Apple Replay. Aw, cute! Keep it up with these fresh ideas, Tim! As an Apple Music user myself (🚩)—and someone who can’t shut up about music, to boot—I’m always hit with that sweet, sweet, social media FOMO every time December rolls around, and I was sheepishly excited that Apple was finally providing their own option for seeing my year in music. What I walked away with, however, was largely disappointing—Apple Replay nails everything Spotify Wrapped has already done, down to its cheugy corporate-hip lingo, and that means it also nails Wrapped’s structural flaws.
Look, I know this is probably the last thing worth getting militant about, and to tell you the truth, my feelings are nowhere near that strong about this. Still, I figured now was as good an opportunity as any to enter my own dark horse into the streaming music recap race (wrolls wright off the tongue. Wrrecap. Wrrrapped. Wrrrreplay)—a real homegrown replay/wrapped situation. So, as 2022 comes to a close (four days into 2023), let’s take a look back at the music that defined my year, and that probably didn’t define yours, but here you are, reading about it, so it’s no skin off my back. Don’t think about it too much.
Songs of the Year
Alright, so about that whole “keeping music streaming honest” thing… for honesty’s sake, it’s still an ongoing process. From my very brief experience with Apple Replay, I think I can safely say it’s revisionist at best, with more interest in brand loyalty than an honest reflection of songs played this year. I certainly found it a little shocking that Jim Noir appeared on neither my top songs nor my top artists of the year, despite releasing an EP a month on Patreon since April. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that he’s using an independent platform to sell his music (and probably making more money per song even with a one-time payment)—funny, because Hexsystem and Sanguinarius, two youtube creators who I bought music from independently despite streaming on Apple, also didn’t appear there. This is far from the most sinister thing a brand has done in 2022, but I do think it’s strange that these songs aren’t included despite Apple Music’s ability to record the amount of times a song has played regardless of where the file originates. There’s certainly some purely technical biases I’ve noticed in that department, too—my phone and laptop count song plays separately despite coming from the same account, and I’m sure songs I listened to earlier in the year are unfairly represented over year-defining songs I discovered in fall or winter. To be fair, that January head-start issue in particular is more with the format itself than any brand’s coding, but I figure both are worth mentioning. In future years, I’ll probably rely on my own data to more accurately reflect this sort of thing, but for 2022, all of these songs were discovered no later than June, and three of them are from, like, February, so that’s probably worth noting.
Oh my gosh, blah blah blah, who the hell even cares?? STEM kids be like. My cards are conspicuously on the table, let’s talk about songs already!
SUPER MARKET | Fapardokly “He cut in the Vibrasonic. KQAS was playing Fapardokly’s triple-tongue highway classic ‘Super Market,’ ordinarily ideal for driving through L.A.” And yes, that’s “Super Market,” two words. As with all of these picks, this made Songs of the Week (02/18/2022) before I (re)started this blog, and so I’m writing this far after I chose to highlight it. This song became my anthem after hearing about it in a total throwaway line in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which sort of makes me mad, because Apple Replay is always like, “every year has an anthem,” and I get all “you don’t know me, stop snooping,” even though I absolutely did have an anthem, which was this song, “Super Market,” two words. My feathers are real ruffled about this. Anyway. I actually wouldn’t have noticed this song in the text at all had I not heard it on the official Inherent Vice playlist in the book club meet that week. As much as I love Pynchon’s affinity for in-text lyrics, I’m not sure it worked for me as a needle drop—while it was supposed to contrast a thick, ominous fog rolling through LA, the contrast wasn’t enough to capture the strange energy of the scene even in juxtaposition. It’s a shame, too, because the second I heard “Super Market”‘s fuzzy guitar punch in, I was Joe Camel hooked. I’m not sure what it says about me that my top song this year is about the most bog-standard song sixties pop could create, complete with twittering trumpets and harmonized, radio-friendly lines like “You don’t have to be important to see the world girl / Just come along with me and I’ll show you everything” (seriously, what is it about taking trips in the 60s, huh? The airfare can’t have been that—ohhhhhh…). Then again, “Super Market” knows exactly what it is, and in that regard, it’s killing it. I can’t listen to this song once—at only two minutes and twenty seconds, this rock is too delightfully catchy not to play at least twice in a row. With even most songs I love, there’s an impending expiration date after a certain amount of intense listening, but even ten months later, I still feel the same giddiness when Super Market rolls in. It’s crunchy and driven enough to rock, but peppy enough to breeze past, and feels better than even the California beach days it captures. “Just close your mind and leave your luggage / come along with me…”
THE SAME | The Smile On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, The Smile’s debut album, A Light For Attracting Attention, brought one of the most infectiously spooky songs I’ve heard in a long time—one that came to me at one of the biggest creative bursts I’ve had in a long time, helping me write some of my personal best work yet (which I’m hoping will be published sometime within the next year, but I can’t make any promises). The opening track to The Smile’s debut album, “The Same” sets both an incredibly ominous mood and an incredibly high bar for the songs that follow. From the first chirp of synth, this song is desolate, bleak, and yet somehow still palatable, perhaps due to its irresistible otherworldliness. Conjuring a snow-swept, misty, stone expanse far from safety and civilization, I can’t help but feel there’s an exciting emptiness in this song despite how full of sound it is, from Thom Yorke’s wonderfully eerie and echoing vocals to the desperate, looping synth and guitars. In fact, the latter reaches such an intense precipice—not quite overwhelming, but wholly engulfing nonetheless—that I can almost feel something welling up from my chest; rising into my throat like I’m about to cry, but still tingling across my whole body like I’ve just escaped something terrifying. I know that all sounds dramatic, but it’s a really thrilling feeling that few other pieces of media can instill in me—I’d say it’s up there with the likes of Alien, The Shining, and The Thing in terms of vibes and vibology, actually. It’s such a compelling piece of music, and though there are technically far more impressive feats of avant-garde musicianship and emotionality on this album, I’m squarely in the unpopular camp that this is the best song on A Light For Attracting Attention. For me, not since Radiohead’s Kid A have Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood been this expertly atmospheric and existential (and just so, so cool).
BROSTINN STRENGUR | Lay Low While this might be another somewhat melancholy addition to this year’s top songs, there’s something so energizing about this song that lifts it far above its glum, foggy emotions. And by “something,” I absolutely mean the percussion, holy cow. Lovísa Sigrúnardóttir’s vocals are incredibly strong, don’t get me wrong, but her drumming is from a completely different song. Kind of reminds me of that overqualified drummer video from a few years back…
In all seriousness, I’m very thankful that my girlfriend brought this song back into my life—after we watched 2021’s Lamb together and heard it on Noomi Rapace’s gloomy radio, I briefly scrolled through some reddit threads to try and find it, but she was the one who ended up tracking it down after I’d given up looking. Since that point, it practically defined the end of my thawing spring semester, playing on loop through sunny, slushy walks and late-night studying alike. My roommate at the time still credits Brostinn Strengur as the thing that saved his OChem final, though neither of us understand one word of the lyrics. As melancholic as this song can sound, so much unassuming power roils and rattles through its percussion, like a drizzle turned maelstrom, and there’s something so invigorating in this crescendo that the sadness never soaks in. Like “Super Market,” I’ve listened to this song at ad nauseam proportions, but I can’t honestly say it’s gotten anywhere close to old or annoying. Still, I’m going to leave “Brostinn Strengur” in 2022 for a while so that it stays steeped in my spring memories.
DOWN TO THE SEA | Graham Coxon If “Brostinn Strengur” was melancholic, then “Down to the Sea” is downright depressing, floating through a bayou of eeriness and ick. Though I absolutely sink to this song’s lows with every listen, Blur guitarist Graham Coxon’s masterful instrumental chaos is such a force to bare witness to that I always leave this song with the same slack-jawed awe. The groaning, ghostly chorus is already art on its own, conjuring images of escaped prisoners or hunted witches squelching through a grey forest, smeared with Spanish moss and creepers that scatter shadows like ink. It’s enough to set listeners on edge despite easing into the beat, just barely primed for the climax, for when 2:07 hits, the sky cracks open. I know this all sounds a little fire-and-brimstone, but with the right speakers, it’s utterly hair-raising, nothing short of supernatural, when the harmonica starts yowling and the guitar starts rumbling. All too soon, the harmonica comes to a shrieking halt, and yet the note that scrapes past goes on just a moment too long, like an explosion ringing in one’s ears. Guys, it’s so good. For as bare as the instrumentation may be, it’s an almost diluvial experience, although I’ll admit it hits different when things already feel a little dark (which is probably why this song is part of the score for The End of the F*cking World, a series I have been morbidly curious about for this same reason). Though this doesn’t reflect my very privileged experience of this year, it certainly had its low points, but Graham Coxon and others were there for me all the way. A parasocial thank you to all those musicians.
SATAN | D.D Dumbo Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom here on the ol’ Max Todd Dot Com Songs Of The Week Annual Review (Max! Todd! Dot! Com! Songs! Of! The! Week! An! U! Al! Re! View!). Despite its name, D.D Dumbo’s “Satan” is an indie pop oddity that conjures whimsical sci-fi and images of the unknown that are just as much curious as they are chilling. With a resonating sitar intro like all good psychedelia, we quickly lurch into a looping synth backbeat that growls like an old, cartoon factory. Combined with Dumbo’s breathy, raspy vocals, this fuzzy song creates a wholly unique sound that feels both accessible and experimental, phasing in prominent bassoon (or bass clarinet? Proud to say I was never a band kid… just orchestra) and harp. Plus, you guessed it… more weird screams for my collection. The lyrics feel just as novel—to me, they seem to be about the inability, or perhaps refusal, to describe an otherworldly experience with limiting human concepts. I’d quote my favorite bits here, but I kind of just love the entire song back to front. I will say he works in “Higgs boson,” and also the phrase “I pray for everyone as a godless sapien,” which goes so hard, right? Speaking of which, I’m always nervous to watch unfamiliar musicians’ music videos, but this one had me hooked from the outset—it perfectly captures that lurching feeling in a way that felt simultaneously unashamedly goofy and also really intriguing. While nowhere near as emotional, it felt very similar to one of my favorite music videos ever, David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” which is high praise, as far as I’m concerned. Give “Satan” a chance, if you have the time:
Bands of the Year
Bad news, gamers: I’m not sure I have a ton of beef with Replay/Wrapped (Wreplay?)’s methods of tracking top artists, at least not beyond forgetting independent artists. I’ve decided to shake up the formatting for my own sick kicks, though, so bear with me. While I understand counting all bands separately, I’ve found I listen to a lot of artists who have branched off from a band I like—whether it be with solo or side projects—and I worried some particularly prolific artists might dominate my whole graph. For a graphing goblin like me, that would be a big no-no. I found it to be a lot more convenient to instead lump all projects with shared creators under one label. This way, we don’t get someone as prolific as Alan Roberts (Jim Noir / Omission Sound / The Dook) or Adrianne Lenker (Big Thief / Adrianne Lenker / Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek) dominating the top 5 list under several different pseudonyms—if there was money involved, this would be what we in my hometown call a “scam,” so I tried to eliminate it on principle.
Of course, it can get pretty hairy when one band has not only multiple solo artists branching separately from it, but collaborations between only a few of its members, who then collaborate with other, separate artists (we all know who I’m talking about here). Without a singular leader at the helm of many bands, solo and side projects can’t always fit under a single umbrella—more like a chain of interlocking Venn diagrams that could connect every artist across history if you squint hard enough. To ameliorate this, I had to double- or even triple-count some songs, one for each solo creator involved. For example, below, you’ll see Daniel Ash gets credit for Bauhaus songs (as well as Love and Rockets and The Bubblemen), but so do David J and Peter Murphy (at least with the former band). Of course, as with all categorization imposed where one was never intended (looking at you, Linnaean taxonomy), this can become very convoluted very quickly, so I might come back with an entirely different system next year, just to keep you all on your toes.
So, that was all a lot, but thankfully, I have a lot less to say about the results. Papa’s famous home-cooked graphs really speak for themselves. So, without further ado, let’s see our top 5 contenders:
Yea, all seven of them. Or seventeen, if you count each stage name separately. There are a lot of ties…. I never said it was convenient. Either way, I’m not sure anyone is surprised by most of this listing—Jim Noir’s been working his little bowler hat off for a spot on this list with an EP release every month since April, and anyone who’s been reading with me since July is already well aware of my Kate Bush Awakening this June and my Peter Gabriel/Big Thief summer. Additionally, I had the immense privilege of seeing Shakey Graves and Gorillaz live this September (separately, though with the cameo-fest that Gorillaz was, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a joint thing), so I’ve been pretty happily entrenched in both. I’m not sure I have any regrets here—as far as I’m concerned, these were all songs well spent.
If it’s surprises we’re looking for, though, we’re going to need a wider scope. That’s right, folks, we’re doing more graphs. Where is my peer review??
This much more ambitious chart shows every group I featured more than once—40 out of a total 128, meaning that this year, approximately 69% of musicians only appeared once in Songs of the Week. Okay, closer to 68%, but I rounded up. Still, of the 40 groups that returned, almost half were only featured one more time, which kind of makes me feel like I led them on.
Not to pat myself on the back, but I think I’m proud of the diversity on display here, and I’d like to continue being this adventurous next year. Not to make a statement of nothing (in stats, which I clearly know everything about, that’s how spurious correlations are born), but this might display an unwillingness to give personal one-hit wonders a second chance, which I’ll willingly cop to. Of the bands behind my top songs, I’ve only really explored The Smile—Fapardokly’s one and only album, Fapardokly, left me wanting more, and I’ve been too afraid that D.D Dumbo, Lay Low, and the rest of Graham Coxon’s solo catalogue might let me down. If there’s a corny New Year’s resolution to coagulate in this amateur data soup, maybe it’s that 2023 is an opportunity to understand the things I find enjoyment in; rather than happening upon a good moment and letting it pass by, maybe good moments are worth digging into so that I can understand why they come to me and how I can invite them in again. Who even knows, though—my horoscope isn’t all about that whole stability thing. Someone in the sky has a vendetta against scorpios and domesticity.
Albums of the Year
If all of that criteria crap felt just too statistical for you, then you might start to understand why my evolutionary biology major was, like, 58% a mistake. But worry you not, fair readers: we’re throwing all of that off the top of this very tall, gothic tower that I am apparently standing on. In fact, this section might be the hardest yet to define, because I’m really going off the beaten path here, somewhere Apple or Spotify will hopefully never be able to go. Maybe this limits the relevance of these posts to other readers, but I made this blog to be able to express myself first, and I’m taking that philosophy to heart when selecting the albums that defined my year. The forces that selected these contenders were fully outside my grasp, and I’m okay with that—such a subjective process can’t really be calculated by any algorithm, whether it be mine or Wreplay’s.
Like Master Chef and Love Island, many good contestants were cut down, and the justifications for these sacrifices are as beyond me as astrology. Quality must’ve been a part of it, but if it was the sole deciding factor, then certainly both of Jack White’s no-skip albums, Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive, would have made the list; not to mention The Smile’s A Light For Attracting Attention, which has been slowly growing on me (from an already very good opinion) since this June. Associated memories can’t have been the only qualifier, either—Love and Rockets’ Lift, which I listened to only two days into 2022, is not only an incredible album quality-wise, but also reminds me of driving to see my girlfriend after New Year’s. The same goes for many other honorable mentions: walking the 19th street bridge to Ty Segall’s “Hello, Hi,” packing up my first apartment to the bittersweet soundtrack of Shakey Graves and the Horse He Rode In On, and routinely playing Blur’s Think Tank front-to-back in plant biodiversity lab so I wouldn’t have to do group work at 9:30 in the morning. All of these played such an important role in my 2022 experience, but aside from the obvious time constraints here, these records don’t have nearly as much to unpack, at least in my experiences, as the selections I’ve made.
What follows are the albums that not only score many of my memories, routine or outstanding, but that also define a key moment in time for me: a moment of growth, a moment of discovery, or just a moment that will never quite be recaptured in any other time.
THE DREAMING | Kate Bush A shock to no one after my numerous and unsubtle allusions to it, The Dreaming is far and away my top album of the year, and talking about it has been a long time coming. I try to avoid discourse surrounding The Dreaming—actually, I try to avoid discourse in general, but especially in this particular case—because I know I’ll be disappointed. Being Kate Bush’s self-proclaimed “she’s gone mad” album, it’s one of the single greatest outpourings of imagination I’ve ever witnessed, which, predictably, means it’s also perhaps the most controversial Kate Bush album out there. I often try to speculate why there’s an emotional disconnect between creators and audiences in cases like these, but today, I’m not sure I want to dwell on criticism for one of my all-time favorite albums—today, at least, is for wallowing in The Dreaming‘s musical wonderland.
As was heralded by her previous album, Never For Ever, Kate bush was making a beeline for weirder waters in the mid-eighties, and The Dreaming is, for me, the culmination of her otherworldly aspirations. Where Never For Ever, in my experience, suffered from overarching incoherence despite its conceptual diversity, The Dreaming somehow balances a kaleidoscope of stories and sounds with a singular thematic thread. This likely won’t be the first time I stab at understanding what makes The Dreaming such a singular masterpiece, but my best guess as of now is that it’s all in the title. Across such a diverse array of high-drama, high-emotion tales, a startling number of them delve straight into an emotional well that most only dip their toes into; not just spectating the land of dreams, but fully submerging listeners into the imagistic unconscious in hopes that we will emerge on the other side, where The Divine lies. Across the album, numerous numinous experiences are touched upon, from the humbling power of infinite knowledge in “Sat in Your Lap,” to the bafflingly beautiful brush with God (or at least the sublime) in “Suspended in Gaffa,” to the ritual contact with the aboriginal Australian dream world in “The Dreaming.” While most tracks that don’t directly touch Wilco’s “divine extremity,” they are still driven to contact something beyond the conscious world. This often manifests as possession, like in the abstract ode to weirdness “Leave it Open,” the The Shining retelling “Get Out of My House,” or even the heartrending “Houdini,” which attempts to reach loved ones beyond the grave. Even the songs that don’t seem on the surface connected to these numinous experiences are inseparably rooted in a deep emotion, like “There Goes a Tenner,” an ode to paranoia in the form of a botched heist. Though The Dreaming covers varied ground, one needn’t look far for the well its cornucopia of songs draws from.
Many say that suffering is the source of the greatest art, but I raise them this: dreams are, and will be so long as our brains stay biochemically the same. The sum and stem of all human experience, the interaction of our conscious and unconscious minds, and The Divine that lies somewhere between them is collectively the greatest mystery of our existence, and therefore the greatest story.The unconscious, being our minds’ deepest mechanics, colors everything about the way we perceive the world, and here, Kate Bush sings to us in the self-same, instinctual language that we all speak in our sleep. Sometimes it’s unashamedly silly, sometimes it’s off-putting, sometimes it pushes us to our limits of perception before we must cry it all away, but it’s the hidden side of being human, though we so often wall ourselves off from it. Maybe that’s why The Dreaming was so strangely received—sometimes, we’re so exposed by our deepest functions that we deny they came from us at all, though they only tell the truth.
Even if its concepts don’t ring totally true to all listeners, the music might just win the skeptics over, bringing forth the same emotional depth with experimental and sometimes even uncomfortable sound. That said, there’s something for everybody here—in fact, I’d be shocked if anyone could deny the bombastic brass and beat of “Sat in Your Lap,” my (current) all-time favorite album opener. Still, I’d be hard-pressed to call much else on this album straightforward pop—even the dancey “Night of the Swallow” has a slow ballad build before its devastatingly stunning climax performed on (get this) a delightfully Irish ensemble of bagpipes, uillean pipes, penny whistle, and bouzuki. The same melody—somehow both triumphant and haunting—is used as a sort of epilogue to “The Dreaming,” incorporated with the even weirder didgeridoo instrumentation. Numerous samples, at the time a totally fresh technology, are also incorporated, following Never For Ever‘s revolutionary glass-shattering sounds in “Babooshka.” As far as I can tell, though, the most experimentation happens not in the instrumentation, but in Bush’s own vocals, as is so often the case. From various cockney accents and jaunty theater cadences that only she could pull off to voice modulation high and low, it’s full of the usual drama and exaggerated pathos of Kate Bush cranked up to eleven. To me, one of the most shocking stunts this album pulls actually closes out the entire thing, coming at the end of “Get Out of My House.” Let me set the scene for you. This is just following the most sorrowful and raw song on The Dreaming, “Houdini,” which tells the betrayed and desperate story of Bess Houdini trying to contact her husband in the afterlife, and which also always gets me a little choked up, because come on. AND THEN. Suddenly, we’re in this spooky, ominous rock song riffing on Stephen King’s The Shining—an emotional progression that makes some sense, I think, until Kate Bush says “I change into the mule” at 3:45 and then shrieks a series of progressively more animalistic “HEE-HAW”s. She’s soon joined by the belted, baritone “HEE-HAW”s of vocalist Paul Hardiman, which sound as self-serious as any opera without donkey noises. I laughed just as much as you’d expect the first time I heard this, but I kid you not, I was crying by the time they were finished. The turnaround was nuts. To this day, I am just as in the dark as to how they pulled this off—it should be hilarious, it should be so funny it’s self-parody—but it captures so many visceral and invasive emotions in one moment that you can’t help but be transformed yourself. It’s everything an unwilling transfiguration should warrant: it’s agonizing, it’s abrasive, it’s ugly, and still, it’s so deeply tragic and theatrical and oh-so-literary. I’ll take flak for this any day and hold my head high—I refuse to call it anything other than a masterpiece.
There’s so much more to say about The Dreaming, and I’m sure the more I listen to it, the longer that list of things will grow. When I listened to it this June, it was completely on a whim, having only recently come around to the sounds “Hounds of Love” and “Sat in Your Lap,” and before I knew it, I had listened to Hounds of Love and The Dreaming back-to-back while drawing a Batman comic for Father’s day. Two albums from even my favorite artists is usually more than my bullet-riddled attention span can stand, but I will always remember the feeling of fully immersing myself in Kate Bush’s music for the first time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain what switch was flipped that turned me from a skeptic to a super-fan, but I’m so thankful I came around, because I’m never going back.
THE KICK INSIDE | Kate Bush Wait, wait, wait, keep the curtains open, I’m not done talking about Kate Bush just yet. I’ve always been a little disorganized about how I explore music, but ever since I was converted, I’ve tried to approach things from a purist perspective. After listening to Hounds of Love and The Dreaming out of order, I decided to pull hard on the reigns and start from the very beginning—something I rarely trust even my favorite musicians with.
Even from the title The Kick Inside, it’s clear to me that Kate Bush has been drawing from The Dreaming long before an album with that title would ever be conceived. Though I’d say it’s far less cohesive, this album busts down the doors with guns-a-blazing, full of frilly dresses, high vibrato, and cartwheeling emotionality. Written by Bush at the ripe old age of 19 (NINETEEN), this album feels like a thesis statement, setting not only a consistent precedent, but a bar so high that I’m shocked she ever surpassed it. All of the Kate Bush staples are here from the outset: high-drama literary retellings (“Wuthering Heights“) infectious pop with warbling vocals (“Kite,” “Them Heavy People”), stunning and nuanced emotionality (“The Man with the Child in His Eyes“), sonic experimentation (“Moving,” “The Saxophone Song“), and flash fiction-esque scenes of her own creation (“James and the Cold Gun,” also “Kite” again… I really like “Kite,” guys). It’s no secret that this album is a lot of a lot, and while most works would collapse under the weight of such lofty aspirations, this one floats along on some magical current with ease and grace.
While it may not have the unifying, conceptual anchor of The Dreaming, The Kick Inside wrangles all of its competing stylistic elements with a bubbly willpower that only a nineteen-year-old could hope to achieve, forging a defining voice in flowers and freedom. This voice is so successfully crafted that even signs of inexperience read as totally intentional, at least to me—the seven or so key changes in “Wuthering Heights” feel like less a misunderstanding of musical constraints, but an exploration of diverse emotional highs and lows that only such classic literature could encompass. Her vocals, swinging from spoken word to powerful, wavering soprano, fall right in line with these almost Broadway emotional heights; however, the instrumentation she employs pushes beyond these classic boundaries, lending all the more texture to the Romance on display. While this album may be the closest Kate Bush comes to traditional singer-songwriter with piano accompaniment, she can stray into a more seventies Hunky Dory sound with songs like “Them Heavy People” and the “The Saxophone Song,” but occasional spikes of weirdness like the groaning seal sounds (??) that open the album with “Moving” ensure that listeners know there’s something stranger beneath the surface. In the end, while her abstract imagination that I love so much is just that—beneath the surface—there’s just enough here to imbue this album with an incredibly unique flavor despite its label-pleasing appeal. Kate Bush at her poppiest is still uniquely, inimitably, and unashamedly Kate Bush, and that’s an identity to be proud of.
US | Peter Gabriel As much of a usual suspect as Peter Gabriel is, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that he’s on this list, even though I almost am. Perhaps if this album had come to me at a different time, it wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact as it did, but Us touched me in a way that is unique to a certain time and place. This August, Us gave some consistency to a time of change: I was preparing to move out of my first apartment, I was three weeks from my final year in undergrad, and I had just begun volunteering at my campus’s natural history museum. In fact, the first time I listened to Us was from the low-ceilinged fluorescent basement of said museum, in an office chair wedged between filing cabinet catacombs of unsorted, early mammal teeth. Settling amongst a fog of job anxiety and a particularly nasty bout of depression I shouldn’t be talking about for strangers online, Gabriel’s own honest vocals pierced through like a floodlight. Though I find myself in a much better place these days, I’m still inspired by the strength with which he expresses such fragile things, and I hope I can someday express that same powerful openness with my own writing. But enough about me—this is about Us.
Though Peter Gabriel’s work is always deeply psychological and even mythological, I think Us is the most honest to all of our experiences—it’s not just spooky, not just struggling, and not just enlightened, but instead a confusing slurry of it all. Oftentimes, recognizing something within ourselves makes it all the more prominent, and in the case of our neuroses, insight and analysis can actually make these issues flare up even worse before they’re addressed and understood—as Trent Reznor put it, “the closer I get / the worse it becomes.” Us captures psychoanalysis perfectly in this way, even from its cover. Here, a wide-armed and lunging Peter Gabriel tries to embrace an intangible woman as she dissipates into smoke. In attempting to (re)capture this feminine figure, whether it be his anima, his muse, or something else entirely, she evaporates from his grasp, probably scolding “you still have so much to learn, little boy.” Much of the album lyrically reflects this desire for (re)connection, from the pleas of its title track “Come Talk To Me,” to its oxymoronic therapy/pop songs “Steam” and “Digging in the Dirt,” to the humorously archetypal “Kiss That Frog.” It’s all so immaculately Jungian, and yet somehow still so accessible, containing a number of eighties hits in its hour-long runtime.
You know, I’m always a little surprised by what a household name Peter Gabriel is. Maybe “surprised” is rude—it’s well deserved, but it seems suspiciously anomalous that someone with such experimental roots and literary depth has reached super-stardom. No matter what’s cosmically responsible for his runaway career, I’ll always appreciate Peter Gabriel’s nigh-unmatched ability to bridge the gap between mainstream and experimental music. For many, his pop music is a gateway into his full-on prog rock, and for me, the pipeline ran the other direction, which is just beautiful, right? While I’m not inclined to call this album “sonically kaleidoscopic” after writing about The Dreaming, I’ve most definitely been spoiled, because the sounds of this album are as diverse as they are inventive, spanning either end of the Peter Gabriel spectrum. Pop masterpieces like “Steam,” Digging in the Dirt,” and “Kiss That Frog” and soulful ballads like “Come Talk To Me” and “Washing of the Water” rub shoulders with much less classifiable music. Though “Blood of Eden” could easily be labeled a regular old ballad, it employs numerous African music stylings that, while at first a little too Lion King for me (in other words, “white people turning nonwhite music insufferably schmaltzy”), has really grown on me, especially after learning of Gabriel’s history with promoting nonwhite and nonwestern artists through Real World records. Even more experimental are “Fourteen Black Paintings” and “Only Us,” with creeping, fluttering synth and an almost atmospheric touch that harkens back to eerie experiments like So‘s “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37).” Ultimately, while it’s not the most wildly experimental work that Peter Gabriel has to offer, it’s certainly amongst the most masterful, as every song feels about as close to fleshed out and final as any art could be. Its thorough completeness reflects not only the analysis that Gabriel went through, but the self-reflection and understanding that we are all capable of, even in times of turmoil.
EP 2 | Jim Noir I know, I know—something about putting the Patreon-exclusive, five-song EP 2 on my albums of the year (Albums! Of! The! Year! Songs! Of! The! Week! Max! Todd! Dot! Com!) might feel a little like cheating, especially with A Light For Attracting Attention, Fear of the Dawn, Entering Heaven Alive, and The Sensual World in the competition. I’d defend myself, but I think EP 2 speaks for itself as some of Jim Noir’s most interesting music in recent memory—perhaps since his compilation album Jimmy’s Show an entire decade earlier (which, trust me, would be a real jaw-dropper if this was a more culturally relevant reference. There would be clickbait on my website about it. Sorry about those, by the way. Not much I can do about it, but I hardly think ridding the post-Alexandria world of such a wealth of arcane prostate panaceas would be productive in the first place). Ten years after Jimmy’s Show, Noir is similarly working towards the release of not one, but THREE albums through crowdfunded support with a monthly EP preview to tide us over. In this sense, we can’t properly explore the songs of EP 2 in their intended context, assuming their eventual album destination even is their intended context. I’d argue it’s not, if Jimmy’s Show is anything to go by—much as I love that album, many of its songs make more sense with respect to their original EPs, giving Jimmy’s Show something of a piecemeal sound.
Wait. I just caught myself. This is defending, isn’t it? I promise that was just context. I promise. Okay, here’s EP 2.
Bracketed by the instrumental parenthesis “Shootout” and “Song46629,” EP 2 is a concentrated dose of gourmet Jim Noir, though its mood lurks far below his usual delight. At just seventeen minutes, the songs we’re given are a smudged vignette that conjures gloom and drizzle and sunken smiles, though there are still neon flashes refracting through it all. Though there’s a certain wistfulness to much of Noir’s discography, it makes no pretense at hiding here, streaking into mask-off melancholy on numerous occasions. Even from the shock that starts the opening song “Shootout,” there’s something about these songs that sinks like a sigh. Similarly, “Boat’s” tip-tapping enthusiasm has a yearning quality, broken like a voice. “Mr. No One,” meanwhile, swerves straight into anticapitalist “Eleanor Rigby” territory with its chain gang sway and perhaps the most bitter, burnt-out lyrics I’ve ever heard from poor Jim. Even after the reprieve of the gently lo-fi “Fireworks,” the fog has not totally lifted, ushering listeners out of the EP with a strange mixture of pop satisfaction and rainy sadness. While not a mood everyone willingly seeks out, it’s an inventive departure for Jim Noir’s music that I haven’t heard anywhere else. While it certainly isn’t outright sad in a traditional or experimental sense, something about the distorted soundscape feels so misty and distant, like it’s being heard from behind a concrete wall. It certainly isn’t the usual sixties psychedelic pop that Jim Noir offers, but something about “Fireworks”‘s fuzzy sound, background vocals, and chorus that lights up beneath the overcast synth like a… well, you know… will always put a full grin on my face.
Maybe the words “working all his life / to feed his kids and wife / fingers to the bone / ends up all alone / for the final time / open and close his eyes / what will be his prize / for working all his life?” followed immediately by “heads up Mr. No One / you’ve had your life and you’ve used it well / but when you get to heaven / you’re gonna come back down and do it over again” unfairly colored my experience of this album’s mood, but it’s safe to say this speaks to a difficult time in Jim Noir’s life (speaking of parasocial relationships). While I can’t claim to know anything about Noir’s life and experience at this moment, I was quite saddened this summer to see someone I look up to as an artist down in the dumps about creativity, work, and the delicate balance between the two. It certainly doesn’t help that I associate this album with a time when I was coming to terms with my first few publication rejections, hypersensitivity, and a general anxiety I still haven’t totally diagnosed. No matter where Jim Noir is at or what I’m unhealthily projecting onto him, I will always be thankful for how his weirdo music has been there for me, providing an atmospheric pop soundtrack to my quieter moments.
CRUEL COUNTRY | Wilco As much as it pains me to say it, I didn’t initially think Wilco’s Cruel Country deserved a spot in my top 5 albums of 2022. Objectively, there are albums I enjoyed far more this year, but subjectively, this ended up being the one I wanted to talk most about. When Wilco first announced a self-proclaimed “anti-country” double album, rife with scathing and sorrowful Trump-era frustration, I was conceptually all in. Yet when April’s first single, “Falling Apart (Right Now),” sauntered onstage with all of its twang and banjo swagger, I found my heart sinking, and it continued to sink for nearly all twenty-one songs on my first listen. I thought, then, that this was bound to happen—after the winning streak of Whole Love, Star Wars, Schmilco, and a slightly less impactful but still beautiful Ode to Joy, my fears that a stinker was next in line were seemingly confirmed. Though I wanted so badly to enjoy Cruel Country, its unjustifiable twang and sparse musical style wasn’t enough to buoy this album to success.
Okay, but then why did I listen to it every summer morning while I scrambled eggs?
Here’s the thing with Cruel Country: more so than its strained, simmering anger, it has an earthy patience, and it’s probably worth paying that patience back in order to enjoy it. Similarly to Peter Gabriel, Wilco’s success is likely due in large part to their mastery of both mainstream and experimental songwriting. For every avant-garde Star Wars freakout, Wilco has a mellow, Sky Blue Sky contemplation, with their best albums, like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, finding a happy medium between the two. And though I’m still inconsolably bitter that an art pop album was reportedly shelved when covid hit in favor of Cruel Country, I can’t deny that what we got is a masterclass in subtlety, atmosphere, and lyricism.
More than anything, that lyricism was the first thing I came to love about Cruel Country—perhaps it’s the fact that the music took a backseat and let the words shine, or perhaps it’s the fact that I entered ready to resonate with the theme, but whatever the case, this album is pure poetry. While it’s no secret that Jeff Tweedy is a wizard with words, especially after reading his book How To Write One Song, it’s clear to me that his grasp on the craft is ever-maturing, even as a total poetry novice myself. His lyrical flexes can’t even be contained by the beginning of the first song, with “I Am My Mother” dropping bombs like “dangerous dreams have been detected / streaming over the southern border” and “if it was up to me, I would’ve rejected / the idea that money could keep you poor” in Bob Dylan fashion. The bar is set eight seconds in, and it’s maintained for an hour and seventeen minutes, with too many high points to list concisely (though that won’t stop me from trying). Some songs, like “Falling Apart (Right Now)” and “Cruel Country,” directly tackle the album’s stated political goals with an exhausted yet potent irony. Lines like “I love my country / stupid and cruel / red, white, and blue / all you have to do / is sing in the choir / set yourself on fire / every once in a while” absolutely bring down the house, using a civilian’s perspective to satirize Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted words on spilling the blood of patriots. This album’s scope spans far beyond its initial political scope, however, confronting mortality, purpose, and pain with songs like the soft and sentimental narrative “Ambulance” (some of the album’s best poetry) and the cosmic optimism of “The Universe” and “Many Worlds.” While this may seem like a privileged distraction from the systemic problems still very much at hand, the end of the album assures us that this isn’t just some hippie shit, and focuses back in on the personal and the farce of gain through pain. One of my favorite tracks, “Story to Tell,” compassionately dispels the suffering artist myth with lines like “Once I cut off my arm / I sewed it back on all wrong / now I don’t have to bend / to reach the bottom shelf.” “A Lifetime to Find,” meanwhile, tells us only to regret regret, easing perfection anxiety with its chorus, “It takes a lifetime to find / a life like the life you had in mind.” Finally, a sort of synthesis comes with songs like “Sad Kind of Way,” which juxtaposes “the best I can do / is try to be happy for you” with “the best I’ll ever be / is the beauty you see in me.”
Though I think “Sad Kind of Way” is too vague not to have multiple meanings, in the wider political context of the album, this appears to be encouraging a sort of amicable separation from American life. In the first half of the album, we see the faces of so many suffering Americans reflected back, victims of an extinct ideal built on privileged dreams—dreams we’re so often told we should be thankful for because they’re “better than the alternative,” as though that therefore means there’s no room for improvement. Like any relationship, patriotism warrants sacrifice, but for many Americans, that sacrifice is far too steep to pay, turning citizenship into an abusive relationship. While Cruel Country unflinchingly addresses this neoconservative reality, it doesn’t end in bleakness. Instead, it goes on to show all that life could be—what it very well can be if we stop feeding the unjust accommodations and anxieties that bind us (whether they be legislative or social) and intuit our way to a better world, for ourselves and our communities. Honestly, this could also just be more of an anthology album than advertised, but I’m cool with that too—I just know enough about writer brains to know there must have been an overarching sentiment.
While the lyrics convey these themes excellently, it took me a few re-listens and a good pair of headphones to really appreciate the musical elements at play here. Even at their most subdued, Wilco’s musical talent is set in stone, with such powerhouses as avant-garde guitar god Nels Cline and always-at-110% drummer Glenn Kotche within the band’s ranks for some twenty years. Having had the privilege of growing up on Wilco shows, watching these musicians unleash their full strength onstage like some kind of Super Saiyan has probably had the unintended effect of dampening many of my first-time digital listens. While a lot of the freakout remains intact in their official records, it’s willfully restrained. To be fair, I’m a devout follower of “don’t show the monster” rules of writing, but I’m not sure the same principles of restraint apply to music—our imaginations may make the unknown scarier than anything a movie could possibly show, but I’m not sure I experience the same extrapolation when such a mellow picture is painted in music. Then again, “mellow” may be the wrong word entirely, as the background soundscapes here are set closer to a simmer. “Cruel Country,” one of many candidates here for my favorite song on the album, is a great example of this, with a folky foreground backed by a hint of whining sirens. Combined with the aforementioned immolation lyrics (and maybe the fact that i was on a busy road at the time), I felt a chill in my bones the first time I heard it, something even cacophonous atmospheres rarely achieve.
Speaking of cacophony, however, Wilco are masters of controlled chaos (the mosquito magnet for the jam band portion of their fanbase), and Cruel Country doesn’t disappoint in this department. Having had the pleasure of seeing them live at Red Rocks this September, I can happily confirm that “Many Worlds” and especially “Bird Without A Tail / Base of My Skull” totally blew my brain apart, even though (or because) I was coming down from a good old-fashioned flu (I masked. Only really hurting myself here. I’d do worse for Wilco). “Bird Without A Tail / Base of My Skull,” in particular, was a huge surprise—I’d quickly forgotten it on my first listen, but after witnessing it live, I feel that same excitement just playing it on Apple Music. I suppose that’s another reason to keep coming back to Wilco—like the best of musicians, they’ll convince you to like music you’d never normally give a second thought, as they have with many songs before (seeing their near-terrifying rendition of “Bull Black Nova” at The Mission Ballroom in 2019 comes to mind). And as for the twang that I so predictably spat on? Well, by the time 2:22‘s higher harmony hits in “Falling Apart (Right Now),” I can’t really hide that I’m smiling. Yee yee, or whatever. Oh, god, I’m sorry, why’d I say that?
What’s Next? (The Juicy Part)
Who’s asking? Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong, you little punk. Beat it.
Actually, if you’re still here, a sincere thank you. I probably should’ve front-loaded this section, even though it doesn’t have an accompanying flashy graphic, because it’s probably the most important part—after all, what would a New Year’s post be without resolutions? I can’t just talk about establishing numerous invasive and potentially pathological parasocial relationships without first putting in a little elbow grease, and the best place to start in that regard is getting way too personal on the internet. For me, 2022 has been a year about learning to live with myself, even though myself can sometimes be an awful roommate. I’m a lucky person to have the constant support network that I do, and I wouldn’t take that for granted under any circumstances, but at the end of the day, I’m my own most constant companion, and someday, maybe I’ll be my own most reliable support, too. Self-care shouldn’t take a lot, but I still have a lot of things to learn about myself (easy breezy), and especially about how to take care of myself. I (re)surrected this blog as a sort of commitment to myself to be creative no matter what else is happening in my life, even if it can’t yet be my full career, and I’d like to maintain that in 2023. I really think I’ve got a good thing going so far, but I have a few ideas for changes going forward that will hopefully be both fulfilling for me and also fun for anyone still following along.
SONGS OF THE WEEK Though I thought my dream stories would be the biggest time sink on Max Todd Dot Com (Max! Todd! Dot! Com! Time! Sink!), I’ve been delighted by how much consistency and fun these extended Songs of the Week have added to my life. I’d certainly consider them my 2022 success story, and they’ve kept me writing and listening even on the most stressful weeks. As you can see from the gallery below, the formatting has gone through a number of iterations this past year—in fact, including the background art as a regularity only started happening in January of this year, where before that, it was only for special occasions. I’ve since settled on an established format, and though I’m sure I’ll riff on it here and there, I don’t foresee it changing other than perhaps the addition of a watermark, because I’m corporate like that. In fact, I don’t see myself tweaking much about Songs of the Week—Songs of the Week, however, is influencing just about everything else I’m aiming to change going forward.
MOVIES OF THE MONTH Max! Todd! Dot! Com! Movies! Of! The! Month! That’s right—though I’m still frankly stunned that anyone at all wants to hear more of my opinions, I am more than happy to oblige. One tradition I upheld semi-consistently through college that’s only recently fallen through is Movie Fridays, where I make my Sisyphean effort to catch up with everyone’s movie recommendations with one or more weekly installments. While I’d love to continue this trend as a regular movie review on my blog, I’m worried that with two weekly writing commitments, I’d barely have writing time for the other creative projects I’m pursuing, which, I hate to say it, are more important to me than even songs or movies. While there are other ways I can make time for that, I think Movies of the Month is a good compromise—I’ll condense my reviews into a similar format to SOTW (and hopefully condense my reviews, as well—looking at you, 28 Days Later) that will come out monthly. It won’t have a consistent number of movies, but it will at least have a consistent release date, which should hopefully appease my avid, rabid fandom (seriously, thank you).
YOUTUBE, I GUESS Something that has also been often-requested by and often-promised to anyone that’s been reading here has been more video content, which I always intend to make and never fully get started on. To be honest, I’d have done this earlier if I didn’t have such lofty plans for how to make it all work—we’re talking mics, costumes, puppetry, photoshoots, the works. I’m sure it won’t come down to that, but I’d like to promise at least one youtube video before this time next year, because I have so many ideas that I’d love to share, and even if only a few people watch what I’ve put out there, it’ll be worth it to have brought that sort of thing into the world.
PUBLISHING You know, what real writers do, instead of burping all of this out for free. 10,000 words? From my little brain? That nobody asked for? Somebody buy me takeout, so help me God, or else I might have to get a real job.
MY PERSONAL COMMITMENTS Even typing all of this out, I’m afraid I’ll be overcommitting. Truth be told, I’m afraid I won’t be able to do some or even all of these things once I graduate and start working. Within all of these projects, though, I’m attempting to make a promise about what I spend my time on, and what I spend my life on. As life grows more complex, I want to shave away what matters less so that I can use my time more judiciously. Right now, what matters is my girlfriend, my family, my friends, my education, and like a little treasure-hoarding goblin, I should ideally be putting myself at the top of that list. Consider this blog and the other creative projects the “me” time here—I’d like to put reading, and drawing, and probably building some funky little legos in there too, but laying it all out here makes it seem a little overambitious. I don’t know. This was supposed to be less “Mr. No One” and more “Leave it Open.” I suppose life might move fast, but it can never hurt to optimize our time—we owe it to ourselves, each and every one of us, to not waste a minute on what’s not feeding us, personally, spiritually, or practically. But, as I often have to remind myself, one minute is a long time, longer when it’s spent on new and beautiful things. Let Paul McCartney’s reminder take us into 2023:
Happy New Year, everyone! Hopefully WordPress will let you embed Facebook videos next time we do this! Aha! I’m not kidding, please WordPress! In the meantime, I’ll see you next week for our regularly scheduled Songs.
Every 2022 Songs of the Week
Oops! Epilogue! Because I’m feeling sentimental, here’s an honest look back at where we’ve been, which is uniquely special this year because my blog was six feet under for more than half of these. From January to July, these were Snapchat exclusives—that’s what you pay for with that whole Snapchat+ subscription they keep very politely pushing. For many, this is their Max Todd Dot Com Debut (Max! Todd! Dot! Com! De! Butt!). This whole bit feels a little self-congratulatory, so I’m not sure if it’ll stick around for next year, but I hope you enjoy this look back at my progress (now featuring flashy buttons!). If nothing else, this actually displays the real-time evolution of the current SOTW format, since, like I mentioned above, I was sort of between styles once I’d left instagram—the shifting color palette and accompanying art only became a weekly staple on January 7th of this year.
Bruno Redondo — Nightwing #78 [01/07/2022]
Vincent Van Gogh — Still Life With Basket and Six Oranges [01/14/2022]
Greg Capullo — Batman: Last Knight On Earth #1/3 (cover) [01/21/2022]
Georgia O’keeffe — Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses [02/04/2022]
Hexsystem (Justin Tomchuk) — No Confluence – EP (cover) [02/11/2022]
Wayne Barlowe —What Remains [02/18/2022]
Joel Coen — The Tragedy of Macbeth (frame) [03/04/2022]
Max Todd — there isn’t a title for this one I was just ripping off literally everything Piet Modrian has worked for in his whole life [04/11/2022]
John Martin — The Deluge [03/19/2022]
Unknown — Composite Camel with Attendant [04/01/2022]
Jeff Hopp — Jimi Hendrix Rainbow Bridge [04/08/2022]
Kazuo Shigara — Chikatsusei Maunkinshi [04/15/2022]
Remedios Varo — Disturbing Presence [04/22/2022]
Remedios Varo — Vegeta Vampires [05/06/2022]
M. C. Escher — Dragon [05/13/2022]
Frida Kahlo — Girl with Death Mask [05/20/2022]
Wayne Barlowe — Sargatanas [05/27/2022]
Jack Kirby — The New Gods #? (two-page spread) [06/03/2022]
Frida Kahlo — What the Water Gave Me [06/10/2022]
Sandy Skoglund — Revenge of the Goldfish [06/17/2022]
Dave McKean — The Sandman Presents [06/24/2022, part 1]
Joshua Middleton — Batgirl #24 (variant cover) [06/24/2022, part 1]
Gustav Klimt — The Maiden [07/01/2022, part 1]
Jack Kirby — Fantastic Four #51 (panel) [07/01/2022, part 2]
Salvador Dalí — The Temptation of St. Anthony [07/08/2022, part 1]
Exobiotica — A Universe Below [07/08/2022, part 2]
Diane Arbus — Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 [07/15/2022]
Lisa Yuskavage — Importance of Association IV [07/22/2022]
Alonso Lopez de Herrera — Saint Anthony and the Christ Child [07/29/2022]
Greg Capullo — Batman #43 [08/05/2022]
Yang Shaobin — Untitled (1999-4) [08/12/2022]
Remedios Varo — Garden of Love [08/26/2022]
Sascha Schneider — Hypnosis [09/02/2022]
John Crawford (?) — Add Violence – EP (cover) [09/16/2022]
Alexander Juhasz — The Babadook (popup book) [09/23/2022]
Hieronymus Bosch — The Garden of Earthly Delights [09/29/2022]
Suzanne Dean — Bluets (cover) [10/07/2022]
Nick Price — Never for Ever (cover) [10/14/2022]
M. C. Escher — Dolphins [10/21/2022]
Phumelele Tshabalala’s — A monument to the iS’pantsula as mama feeds the community [10/28/2022]
Henry Fuseli — The Nightmare [11/04/2022]
Leonora Carrington — De la Hierba Santa [11/11/2022]
Unknown — Ecce Homo [11/18/2022]
Wayne Barlowe — Emperor Sea Strider [11/25/2022]
Julie Buffalohead — A Little Medicine and Magic [12/02/2022]
James Lavadour — Boom! [12/09/2022]
Leonora Carrington — Occult Scene (Jacob’s Ladder) [12/16/2022]
James Harvey — We Are Robin #4 (page) [12/23/2022]
Cindy Ji Hye Kim — Pascal’s Wager [12/30/2022]