Why 36?

Because I had worked hard on preparing a list of 30 for you to explore — and then, after the clock on 2022 ticked down to zero, I  finally caught up with a few more records that I’d overlooked, and now I can’t wait to share them with you.

Despite all of the claims from critics across music journalism about the “best” music of 2022, the fact remains that our experiences with music are highly influenced by the contexts in which we attend to it, by our individual histories, by our relationships and communities, by our susceptibility to marketing and fleeting trends, and by our curiosities and questions and concerns. So you won’t find me joining the clamor of those presuming they know what is “best.” This is just a personal expression of admiration and gratitude for those favorites that moved, impressed, and inspired me, the music that made me feel grateful to be alive.

For me, 2022 was a year of challenges and growth. I received extraordinary affirmations for my teaching from colleagues and students, and I am deeply grateful to the committee who reviewed my record of teaching over the last few years and gave me an encouraging report. I traveled and spoke at other schools about faith and art, and I met new friends and colleagues there. While I struggled to find the time and resources to write new fiction, I wrote a lot of essays on cinema and music, and my work was published for the first time at my favorite film-criticism website: Bright Wall Dark Room. Then, 2022 wrapped up with a huge surprise: a promising opportunity for my writing that I did not anticipate. (I’ll share details about that soon!)

But 2022 was also a year of grieving. I am grieving the ongoing betrayal of my country by compulsive liars, fear-mongers, and manipulative anti-Christs. I am grieving with those who have suffered lasting damage from COVID (and lasting damage from the COVID-deniers, anti-vaxxers, and anti-maskers who accelerate the ongoing pandemic). I am grieving with those harmed by wolves in disguise among communities of faith. Most of all, I am grieving the way my own academic community of faith has been repeatedly betrayed, undermined, and harmed by the fear and prejudice of the anti-intellectuals at the controls of the school. While I have never felt more purposeful in my teaching and my writing, I also feel as if I’m doing so on a ship sabotaged by its own captains… and sinking. I am watching a vision that has inspired me for more than 30 years dismantled by the very people who have the power to help it flourish.

Music is one of the languages of God that sustains me. I am so grateful for the rivers of song that continue to flow into my heart, strengthening me to endure another season. Music brings me the beauty, the poetry, the wisdom I need to remember the Grand Scheme, in which God’s kingdom of Unconditional Love and Embrace overcomes all prejudice, all fear, all corruption. My dreams will be realized. Grace will overcome legalism. Courage will overcome fear. The hateful and the fearful will make a small noise for a while, but their empty victories will be overwhelmed by the Big Music of love.

Music gives me the melody and the vocabulary for rejoicing in that hope.

And I found that in these records. I enjoyed more than a hundred albums this year and these are the ones I am going back to again and again.



Sault — Air

Sault — Aiir

Sault released six albums and an EP this year. How can that be legal?

Even more impressive, every release from this mysterious British collective — we know Inflo and Little Simz are heavily involved, and we know several more names as well, but there’s a lot that’s still secretive about them —  was worth listening to repeatedly. And each record was distinct in style and substance.

These two were epic works of symphonic orchestral music with powerful choral performances, and even so they were strikingly different from one another:

Air is epic in scope and overwhelming in its intensity. Coming on like a hurricane, it resonates with conviction and purpose, weaving a rich and classical tapestry of voices and instrumentation celebrating Blackness against forces of cultural and historical erasure.

For some perspective from an admiring critic who knows what they’re talking about, check Shy Thompson atPitchfork.Thompson writes,

… [A]s the group makes a sharp pivot to lush contemporary classical, they take the opportunity to remind us that even a style of music seen as traditionally European has been deeply influenced by Black innovators. “Luos Higher” makes plucked stringed instruments and chants its centerpiece, drawing influence from the music of the Luo people of Kenya for whom the track is named. The delicate string work of “Heart” conjures the specter of an Alice Coltrane spiritual journey, while the nearly 13-minute symphonic suite “Solar” calls back to the exuberance of Julius Eastman’s kinetic masterpiece Femenine with its twinkling pitched percussion. Every piece on AIR wears its heart on its sleeve, conveying an emotional urgency that makes the album feel like SAULT’s most personal body of work, despite being mostly wordless.

Me, I find Air too much to absorb in its entirety, but I come back again and again to bask its glory the way I might cautiously inch my way out onto a promontory over the Grand Canyon.

The follow-up, Aiir, is half as long and easier to absorb and enjoy in one sitting, playing rather like a score for a silent film or a program of compositions celebrating natural wonders. With the track titles “4am,” “Hiding Moon,” “Still Waters,” “Gods Will,” and “5am,” they suggest that this might be a meditation on what it takes to hold on through the longest, darkest part of the night until the first touch of dawn kindles a fulfillment of hope.

With either of these achievements, I feel like the 7-year-old I once was, choosing a mystery record from my grandfather’s collection of classical LPs, putting on my grandfather’s headphones that were too large for me, and losing myself in a very, very Big Music that both intimidates and enchants me.


Sault — 11

The latest in Sault’s albums with numerical titles is another eclectic playlist of neo-soul spirituals, pop, and hip-hop running on minimal bass beats and low-key grooves. It’s like a multi-genre worship service driven by calls to “fear no one.” As various authoritative sources of music criticism have been debating which record of the surprise five-album Sault surprise release is the best, Uncut is one of the publications that favors 11 as the finest:

12 is, marginally, the pick of the bunch, a mix of 11 pop miniatures, including the psychedelic A fro-pop of “Together”, the Brit-soul of “Higher”, the dreamy, quiet-storm R&B of “Fight For Love”, the slow-burning funk of “In The Air” and the funk-meets-ragga of “Glory”. Every track is a banger.

I may not agree that it’s “the pick of the bunch” — you’ll see which ones I prefer much nearer the top of this list — but I love it anyway. Here are the three tracks from 11 that are currently my favorites:

33 – 32

Maggie Rogers — Surrender

Madison Cunningham — Revealer

Here are two young women at the peak of their powers — or maybe that’s not fair. Who know where they’ll go from here? Whatever the case, both Madison Cunningham and Maggie Rogers got heavy rotation in my headphones this year, and I’ll be tracking what they do closely from here on.

Rogers must be the biggest rock star to ever have earned a Master of Religion and Public Life degree from Harvard Divinity School. Is that evident in her hook heavy, arena-pop sound or lyrics? No. A review by at Yahoo describes the songs as “stories of anger and peace and self-salvation,” in which the singer finds “transcendence through sex” and “freedom through letting go.” But when Rogers’ put her own words (for Apple Music) to the album’s driving idea, it sounds like the heart of the Idles album Joy As an Act of Resistance that topped my list a couple of years ago: “… joy as a form of rebellion, as something that can be radical and contagious and connective and angry.It has the intimacy of an album recorded in her family’s New York City garage (which it was) and also at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in England. I think that will make sense when you hear it.

It’s Cunningham’s album where I can hear the struggle of faith. And that’s what faith is, right? A struggle? If it isn’t, it isn’t faith. Faith is a risk. It’s the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And I hear that in the opening track, as the singer speaks to an unnamed other who has been “all I’ve ever known,” but whom she’s not sure exists:

Will you take me as I am?
In perfect obedience to all these demands
I’m a child to the wonder but a victim of the change
When I see you again, will I know what to say?

I hear nothing, no rescue coming
Just church bells drawing out the dogs
I’m afraid that you were made by invention and odds are
I may never know

I can’t help but wonder if Cunningham might not have been inspired by Sam Phillips, the once-Christian-music-pop-star turned poet of doubt and longing. After all, she’s dancing in a blurred spin on the cover, just as Phillips did in her pivotal album The Turning.

In “Who Are You Now,” she sings lyrics that match my own exasperation when I think of the double-speak of the evangelical culture in which I grew up:

Who are you now?
Who are you this time?

Whеn did war become sensiblе and love unfair?

But if I’m being honest, I play Revealer first and foremost for the inventive interplay of fuzzy guitars, complicated rhythms, and acoustic experimentation that keeps it feeling fresh, particularly in “Collider Particles.”


Jack White — Entering Heaven Alive

If I’m honest about why I still listen to Jack White, I’ll give the same answer I’ve always given: hooks and riffs. The guy just seems as divinely inspired as anyone in modern rock when it comes to cooking up a searing guitar line that you’ll never get tired of hearing. His lyrics rarely intrigue me, and even more rarely move me, and his vocals have a certain Robert Plant-ish edge to them. But if it weren’t for the guitars, I wouldn’t show up. So I’m surprised that this release, arriving just a few months after the stranger and more experimental Fear of the Dawn, made a stronger impression on me than any previous Jack White work. I think it’s the strong bones of the songwriting, the constantly surprising and richly layered sonic effects that set off fireworks within those songs, and the cinematic qualities of the storytelling (and which are explored in ambitious videos like the one attached here).


Metric — Formentera

Metric was, for me, one of 2022’s biggest and most exciting rock discoveries. As I listened to Formentera, I realized how much I’ve been missing those ’90s-era huge rock sounds driven by gutsy, expressive female vocalists — like Belly’s Tanya Donnelly or PJ Harvey. In 2021, Wolf Alice grabbed my attention and never let go, and their live show was exhilarating. This year, Just Mustard is on the scene and kicking me in the face. But now I’ve discovered that I don’t need to look for brand new talents; maybe I just need to look for those I’ve been missing. Apparently, Metric’s been pumping out bold rock albums since… 1998?! How have I missed them? Critics seem to agree that Formentera is bigger, bolder, more ambitious than anything they’ve ever done, but I’m loving it so much I’m compelled to work backward to find out what I’ve been missing. Here are three tracks worth sampling: I love the epic lament for our self-inflicted downward spirals of online despair called “Doomscroller”; I love the relentless momentum of “What Feels Like Eternity”; I love the hushed anticipation of “All Comes Crashing” that delivers payoff after payoff when those heavy Cure-like drums kick in for the chorus. Metric has a new fan, and I’d really love to see them live.



Patti Griffin — Tape: Home Recordings and Rarities

The deterioration of Patti Griffin’s voice after her recent cancer treatments has been a tragic loss to American music. I saw her give an heroic performance at the Nowhere Else festival in October of 2021, boldly delivering a whole show of great songs, riding on the support of her enthusiastic and faithful fans. But it’s hard to accept that the voice we loved so much for so long isn’t coming back.

Thus, when I discovered this release at the very end of the year, it felt like a Christmas miracle: a modest collection of archival recordings that hold together remarkably well as an album. “Don’t Mind” is another playful, high-energy highlight of her dynamic-duo collaborations with Robert Plant. “Sundown”

But my favorite track is “Night,” which speaks of a deep intimacy with depression — or, worse, despair — in some astonishing lyrics:

Night, you come and sing the songs
Of birds that have no eyes
Of birds that never fly
Of birds that tell me lies

Night is watching from the tower
Turns on the electric fence
The night can make you disappear
Without a trace of evidence
Night is like judgement
Where nobody speaks on your behalf
You hear yourself calling out loud
And you hear the night laughing back…


Beyoncé — Renaissance

Rosalía — Motomami

M.I.A. — Mata

I rarely feel so ill-equipped to write about music than when I write about artists like these — hyper-confident, hyper-talented divas of the dance floor, rising from experiences, cultures, and traditions quite foreign to me, and leading a vast host of devoted and adoring young female fans. And sometimes I’m tempted to keep my enthusiasm to myself for fear I’m trying to look like someone much younger than myself. But I genuinely enjoyed all three of these records repeatedly this year, not only because they challenge me to really listen and expand my horizons, but because their energy and creativity give me hope.

And if you have to go to work day after day in a “Christian nation” where misogynists, racists, and anti-christs still have fierce grip on the controls, I recommend driving in a car that pulses with the extravagant beats of these three records, from these three divas, who suffer the effects of cultural oppression far more directly than I ever do, and who invest their work with inspiration for those they hope will rise up and change the world. Their motivational zeal, audacious imaginations, hyper-colored sounds, and irrepressible joy are proof enough that God is alive and well within them. And their music was a life-giving adrenaline shot morning after morning for this 52-year-old white guy’s weary heart.



Kae Tempest — The Line Is a Curve

Mercury Prize-nominated Kae Tempest has become a regular on my annual lists, and much of that has to do with their impressively literary work — not just in rap, but in the poetry, the plays, and the novels they’ve written. So much hip-hop focuses on the performer’s ego and sense of being disrespected, but Tempest’s focus is on the work in a way that earns respect without being preoccupied with it. If you’ve been following their journey, you’ve noticed the name change, noticed the transition, and tracked the trouble through song after song about the quest for authenticity and wholeness. With blunt-force honesty in one hand and the power of love in the other, she’s poised to knock the literal hell out of us. I’m reminded, as she performs, of the power of Jericho Brown’s poetry recitations. And there’s a moment in “Grace” at the end of this record that feels like an epiphany, a breaking out of the storm into open, blue skies.

For a full review by critics who know the genre better, read Emma Madden at Pitchfork or Timothy Monger at AllMusic.


Kendrick Lamar — Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

Kendrick Lamar is the most interesting rapper recording today, in my opinion — not only for his wisdom, his writing, and his vigorous engagement with questions of faith (which are inseparable from questions about social justice), but also for his sonic adventurousness. Both To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. have been records that challenged me, frustrated me, inspired me, and ultimately expanded my understanding of and love for my neighbors and my world. So I’ve been eagerly anticipating this one.

And, to Lamar’s credit, it is not what I might have hoped for. I mean, I wouldn’t know what to hope for from him, but I probably would not have jumped to vote for an album of such abrasive and discomforting material. That is, ironically, why I have to put it on this list: When you listen, you’ll know that this is the album Lamar needed to make: He had to release the storms roiling in his head and heart, and they are messy storms, full of struggle, shame, insecurity, and vision. It’s going to be an album I listen to rarely, but when I do it is going to demand my close attention, my patience, and a willingness to step outside of my comfort zone to ponder complicated personal matters: confusion, confessions, rants, rage.

Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers lacks the kind of highlight tracks I would usually share with others in hopes of inspiring their curiosity. “Crown” is currently my favorite because I do connect to that one, as someone who tends to sabotage his own peace of my mind by overcommitting to too many parties, expecting too much of myself in pleasing everyone. The mantra/chorus “I can’t please everybody” is one I’ve been singing a lot lately.

I’ll post a few tracks here that I have found most rewarding in the few times I have struggled through. Am I including this album because I feel that a more sophisticated critic would? No. I’m including it because I grow when I am challenged, and this is a strong challenge. I may not much enjoy it much, but I admire it, and I am learning from it. For that, I am grateful.

Here are some words from critics better equipped to write about the reigning king of hip-hop:

Jon Caramanica in The New York Times :

“Lamar, 34, is an astonishing technician, a keen observer of Black life, a proletarian superhero, an artist who reckons with moral weight in his work. But judging by “Mr. Morale,” which was released on Friday, he is also anguished, ravaged by his past and grappling with how to make tomorrow better, besieged by a collision of self-doubt and obstinacy. And fallible, too. … The Lamar of Mr. Morale sounds lonely and tense, increasingly aware of the burdens placed upon him by his upbringing and potentially unsure about his capacities for overcoming them.

If To Pimp a Butterfly from 2015 was Lamar’s social polemical peak, and DAMN. from 2017 was his anxiety album — the product of realizing how his very private thoughts were becoming very public and scrutinized — then “Mr. Morale” is about retreating within and pondering your accountability to the person in the mirror, and to the handful of people you keep closest.

Stephen Kearse at Pitchfork:

Despite all its aggrieved poses and statements, the often astonishing rapping, the fastidious attention to detail, and its theme of self-affirmation, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers ironically never settles on a portrait of Kendrick. Perhaps that slipperiness is the thrust of the album, which might be read as his answer to a question he asked a decade ago, before he was anointed as hip-hop’s conscience: “If I mentioned all my skeletons, would you jump in the seat?” That fear of being defined by trauma and shame resonates throughout, but Kendrick and his blemishes are so defined by negation—of white gazes, of Black Twitter, of weighty listener expectations—that by the time the record ends, Kendrick’s “me” is just as nebulous as the effigy he’s spent the album burning.

Tom Breihan at Stereogum:

On opening track “United In Grief,” Kendrick says he went and got himself a therapist, and it’s like: Yeah, no shit, buddy. If it’s anything, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a therapy album. Kendrick spends the bulk of the record interrogating his own perceived failures. He talks about his “lust addiction,” about his “daddy issues,” about dealing with “writer’s block for two years.” Eckhart Tolle, a German spiritual-leader type who I’d never heard of before this morning, pops up multiple times. On “Savior,” Kendrick directly addresses the idea of his own importance, and he repeats over and over that he can’t be the leader that some people want him to be. He’s not even sure that he can be the man the he wants himself to be. It’s a necessary corrective.

Kendrick Lamar already won. He’s almost universally acknowledged as an all-time great rapper, an artist of the highest order. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a fascinating, engrossing answer to the question of what a Kendrick Lamar album might be in 2022. It’s not even just one album; it’s two, even if I don’t totally understand how the two halves of the album are supposed to be different from one another. With this album, Kendrick makes it clear that he can’t and won’t be all things to all people. He’s not the voice of a generation. He doesn’t even have his own shit figured out, and he’s worried that he’s doing more harm than good in the world. He’s definitely not down to be a corporate avatar for social progress and racial reconciliation: “Capitalists posing as compassionates be offending me/ Yeah, suck my dick with authenticity.” An album like this could’ve been a long-delayed victory lap. Instead, it’s self-consciously knotty and clumsy and sometimes ugly. I don’t agree with all the ideas that the album presents, but I love how wild and ungainly it’s willing to be.


Chagall Guevara — Halcyon Days

Midnight Oil — Resist

Dear Chagall Guevara, thank you. Thank you for making it happen. Steve Taylor had a tremendous formative influence on my understanding of faith and art in the late ’80s, so when you jumped the barbed wire of the Christian music industry and released your first full album to those thrilling rave reviews, it was exhilarating. As one of your first fans in 1990, I bought the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack as soon as it was available just to have your song “Tale of the Twister.” Your full album remains my favorite hard rock record of the ’90s, and that explains why the band’s breakup in ’93 was so disappointing. No rock band I know have ever had lyrics quite like yours — fierce, literary, searing, funny. I hoped for your reunion until such a possibility seemed too far out of reach. So this return thirty years later made me more than a little nervous. Could you recover the energy? The voice? The vision? The answer, much to my relief, is yes. You sound like you’re picking up right where you left off, and your wisdom about the troubles of 2022 shows that your vision is more necessary than ever. Thank you.

Dear Midnight Oil, please help me to tap into whatever serves as your power source. You have maintained a sense of focus, of energy, of excellence across four decades. And you are still raging with righteous rock-and-roll anger without allowing it to corrode your spirits. Thank you for all you have given us. I wish U2 was still capable of cooking up a song like “Nobody’s Child” and then delivering it with the furious abandon of 18-year-olds.



Florist — Florist

Reminding me of how Luluc’s Passerby stole my heart a few year’s back, Florist‘s quiet, complex, deliriously poetic reflection on birth, childhood, family, love, sex, loss, and death is truly epic. I love the lyrics, the exquisitely layered dreamscapes of sound, and the experimental instrumental interludes that give us time to meditate on what’s just been sung. I wish more bands would give themselves the freedom to explore instrumental music. Not everything has to be a radio-ready hit. The reason I find Radiohead so much more interesting than U2 over the last 20 years has been Radiohead’s consistent interest in music over pop formulas. I could listen to them play ten minute versions of any of their songs just to enjoy their experimentation and exploration. Florist has that curiosity, that patience, that interest in color and texture; the music is the thing — it isn’t just there as a setting for the words.

The song “Red Bird Pt. 2 (Morning)” has made me toy with the idea of making a playlist full of songs that are built from the template of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” R.E.M.’s “Hope” would be there, and quite a few others as well.