On the cover of U2’s Rattle and Hum, we see an image captured from a memorable moment of the band’s legendary Joshua Tree tour. Bono picks up a spotlight and aims at the Edge, who is setting fire to the very air with a searing “Bullet the Blue Sky” guitar solo. The light is so fierce, I’m sure both performers felt the heat of it. It was almost like Bono was striving to make sure every eye in that huge, sold-out arena was focused on the fingers, strings, and imagination that were the source of such ferocious beauty. The sound was personal. It was political. And it brought everyone together in a prayer of passion expressing (to borrow a phrase from Romans 8) “groanings too deep for words.”

In my annual posts about my favorite music of the year, I’m striving to do the same: I want to pick up a spotlight (“this little light of mine”) and draw your attention to the illuminating influence of others — the music in which I have sensed something deeper, something higher, something fuller than mere words can say (although the poetry of a great lyricist can certainly make a difference).

Regarding the music of 2022, I have already posted a bunch of Honorable Mentions, and then Parts One and Two of a three-part list. It’s a travel diary. It’s a prayer journal. It’s a photo album full of highlights, full of snapshots of sound that spoke to me.

And now, here are the Top Ten (which I first published more than two weeks ago at Give Me Some Light). I hope you find some music here that speaks to you.


Beth Orton — Weather Alive

It’s been six-years since the surprisingly electronic Kidsticks, and Beth Orton comes back with what may be my favorite of all of her records: an eight-song, self-produced reconciliation of all of her styles. And there is a new depth in her performance that suggests a sort of surrender to the hope that can be found in forces greater than human endeavor, a grateful and world-weary collapse into the hands of higher powers. In this season of her career, she makes me think more and more of great vocalists like Marianne Faithful and Lucinda Williams, her instrument bearing the scars and ragged edges of someone who has truly lived, truly wrestled, and still (somehow) truly dreams and hopes. Thus, the songs play like psalms:

In the morning, all is dawning
In the stillness of the day
Mist is rising, jewels aligning
And the shadows fall away
And the world calling out to me
But the world out beyond my reach
Almost makes me wanna cry
The weather’s so beautiful outside
Almost makes me wanna cry
The weather’s so beautiful outside
How many times did I start my day with this song as I sought to find the courage to get in the car and drive to work?
And then there are songs like “Haunted Satellite,” about straining for hope when it’s hard to navigate through a wilderness of lies and storms. But don’t sleep on those last lines, which sound like both a dire warning and a promise worth believing in:
Summer runs through winter’s blood
Spring’s beneath the snow in bud
Times, it’s hard for me to see
But that’s the way it’s gotta be
We who live as satellites
We’re like a plant that don’t need air, it just needs light
I ain’t forgotten all that I thought would be
All of the world outside of you and me
All of the world outside of you and me[Outro]
Nature’s got a bigger gun than anyone
Nature’s got a bigger gun …
Here’s Pitchfork critic Sam Sodomski comparing it to records most artists could only dream of being associated with:
The spiritual predecessors are other transformative records defined by their atmosphere—Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. On first listen, more than any one song, you will most likely be struck by individual sounds and textures. As a pianist, Orton gravitates toward dark, silvery cobwebs of melody, repeated motifs that drift in and out of the light. “Friday Night,” an early highlight, feels a bit like a folk song—maybe “After the Gold Rush” set to the tempo of a plane picking up speed along a runway at night—but Orton sounds too moved by its rush of memories to stick to the melody. Letting the words echo through its descending chorus, her voice breaks at just the moment you expect it to take flight, drawing attention to how she sounds at her most ragged and lost.





Sault — Earth

Sault — Today and Tomorrow

Sault — UNTITLED (God)

I’m giving these three spots in the ranking to the mysterious British music collective Sault, because Earth, Today and Tomorrow, and UNTITLED (God) are my three favorites of the five-album surprise they released on a single day this year. And they gave it all away for free to those who knew the password. And the password? Well, it’s the secret key for the meaning of life: godislove. 

The styles on the five records range all over the map: orchestral compositions with choral arrangements (Air and AIIR); children’s choirs singing as if the world depends on them, while hard rock backs them up (Today and Tomorrow); and gospel chants sung as prayers with bass and percussion accompaniment (Earth).

And then there’s my favorite: UNTITLED (God). On this record, Sault takes us to church for some groove-heavy R&B and Gospel, with mellow praise songs, prayers, and revival-inspired choral anthems. Get ready to sing along, dance in your church pew, and step into the aisle to stand and clap your hands. Love is the name of the game.

Somehow, all of these records belong in one big boxed-set of vinyl. I can dream, can’t I?

For detailed reviews of these album marathons by one of the most interesting phenomena taking place in all of music, visit The Guardian for Damien Morris’s review, NPR for Anupa Mistry’s review, and KEXP for a stunning personal take from Rachel Stevens in which she describes a sort of religious experience.


Tomberlin — i don’t know who needs to hear this…

“Love your neighbor” is only half of the assignment. “Love your neighbor as yourself” — that’s the trick.

Growing up in the bubble of American evangelical culture, I learned that putting others’ needs over my own wasn’t just the challenge — it was the assumption. And that assumption was blown all out of proportion. I watched generous believers exploited, and they went along with it because their hard work and creativity were “in the service of God.” Self-care was often treated as selfishness. I watched private Christian school educators paid far less than their public-school-teacher equivalents, and for their troubles they were denied any kind of retirement fund or grad school support that they had been teased with all along the way, resources that they would eventually need. I was taught to believe that God would always provide the resources we needed in order to keep on keepin’ on serving others. And if I thought to withdraw and tend to my own needs, for my own mental health and for the responsible stewardship of my talents, I was treated as if I was, at best, probably doubting God’s capacity to sustain me, or, at worst, I was being self-centered and hard-hearted.

I’ve seen such conditioning result in physical and spiritual exhaustion in professing Christians. I’ve seen it lead to regrets, bitterness, and self-destruction.

Meanwhile, Jesus himself sets the example: When the crowd gets too much, he withdraws in a boat for solitude, prayer, and rejuvenation.

What does this have to do with Tomberlin?

Tomberlin’s new album begins with “Easy,” a hushed, aching testimony of someone whose inclinations toward patience, humility, and generosity are in fact a weakness. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful opener, the delicate and bittersweet piano notes meandering over drum and bass as the camera zooms in on a weary soul that needs to be re-inspired.

The second song, “Born Again Runner,” similarly soft with electronic flourishes shimmering around the edges, reveals what may be meaningful context for “Easy”: The singer is a survivor of a born-again childhood as a preacher’s kid, one who is trying to cope with the contradictions between her father’s pulpit-pounding messages and his behavior behind the scenes.

She sings,

You preach peace and patience,
But you don’t seem to have your own
And I’m tired of calling your bluff

I know I’ve said it more than just once
I know I’m not Jesus, but Jesus,
I’m trying to be enough.

Intrigued yet? Such descriptions were what won my attention, but I was unprepared for how moved I would be by the performances which — no surprise here — come from a songwriter’s lived experience. Sarah Beth Tomberlin is indeed the daughter of a Baptist minister and, like me, she had to hide the curiosity for “secular” music that eventually became a passion. Now, she sings her way through her disillusionment and frustrations, her childhood in faith communities creating a lifelong tension between the glory of the Gospel vision and the reality of an irresponsible religion.

If you don’t connect with these experiences, you may still find yourself enthralled by these elemental and spacious compositions: the whispering, atmospheric electronics; the way the piano provides light touches of honey and vinegar, and then sometimes blooms into full and forceful chords. Sometimes, this album was for me a retreat into prayers for so many people I know — some my own age, some trying to make sense of their lives after leaving home for college. And sometimes, the music was just too poignant, and I had to turn it off until my heart could bear it.


Ezra Furman — All of Us Flames

2022 was another year of dramatic conflict as privileged populations continued to act in flagrant hatred, motivated by fear against those whose color, religion, or sexuality they do not understand. Thus it was, for me, a year of more heartache than joy: I’ve never learned how to cope with the reality of bullying, especially when I see it carried out against the most vulnerable. And my spirit knows that many who feel abandoned and rejected by the church are actually the people who live closer to Jesus than those who misguidedly judge them. Thus, my head and heart were wide open to songs of lament, and they leaned eagerly into songs of hope.

This year, the most personal and passionate of those appeals in music came, as far as I can tell, from Ezra Furman, whose experience as a trans woman is at the heart of every song on this, what is easily my favorite of her records so far.

Listening to All of Us Flames the first time through, I knew I would be playing this frequently for years to come, as the albums that Furman’s passion and prophecy bring to mind include Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and other punk-rock anthems of rage and righteousness from U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Arcade Fire. My car stereo doesn’t play these songs loud enough. While the details in the narratives of these songs are vivid and visceral, there’s a sort of Holy-Spirit infusion in Furman’s delivery that gives the whole thing a resonance far beyond its own running time.


Little Simz — NO THANK YOU

Simbiatu “Simbi” Ajikawo’s new record was produced by Info, and that’ll be no surprise for those who have been paying attention to the amazing marathon of releases by Sault. Sault’s wide-ranging sound wouldn’t exist without Inflo, and Little Simz has blessed some of those records with her own inspired bars and bravado.

But this one is all her own, and that’s an advantage: It has the force of personal testimony, and every track feels lived in and time-tested.
It’s also heavily influenced by her rare and inspired response to her sudden success with Sometimes I Might Be Introvert in 2022: She cancelled her U.S. tour. The album works as a declaration of her dedication to self-care in an industry that can burn up even its greatest artists. And here, she raps about refusing the devil’s temptations, and insists on doing what’s best rather than what would be “best for business.”

The greatness of Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was in its epic scope, the way Little Simz announced “I am hip-hop royalty” in a way that made it impossible to argue, while at the same time demonstrating thoughtfulness and heart and integrity that left us not only impressed but inspired. And somehow, in only a year’s time, she delivers an album every bit as compelling as its epic, star-making predecessor. The greatness of NO THANK YOU is in its tightness, the impeccable selections and sequencing which make it a coherent album. Sure, the sound is sparer, but it still commands our attention.

Consider the dreamy, looping layers of backing vocals “Angel,” a profession of her commitment to preserving her health — mentally, spiritually, artistically — in an industry that will chew you up and spit you out. Consider the one-two punch of “X” and “Hearts on Fire,” both of which will likely convince first-time listeners to interrupt the album’s flow and repeat those tracks immediately. Consider the exhilaration of “Gorilla,” in which the fanfare of horns highlight her as an action hero who has completed her to-do list, and is now bouncing around with her gold medal on the trophy stage.

And through it all, you’ll find a lot of overlap with the Sault albums that she appears on: You’ll enjoy surprises in genre fusion, and in sudden shifts from dizzying delivery of high-speed bars to silky smooth harmonies of the pop choruses or choral anthems.

This was an 2022 album I didn’t hear until the first few days of 2023, and I knew right away that I would find it as fresh as any new 2023 release for many months to come. Ladies and gentlemen, I have a new favorite hip-hop artist, one I will listen to with enthusiasm. Perhaps its strange for a guy my age, from my background, to get excited about music like this — but I refuse to outgrow my appetite for new sounds and new voices. And I’m genuinely inspired and moved by Little Sims’s vision.



Terry Scott Taylor — This Beautiful Mystery

With direct callouts to G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allen Poe, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Stephen King, the great Terry Scott Taylor — one of the most literate and inspired songwriters in the whole history of Christian rock — has delivered an astounding double album of lament over the corruption of evangelical Christianity, searing indictments of the antichrists committing atrocities under the banner of Jesus’ name, and anthems of hope in the lasting promises that justice will roll down and the meek (remember the meek?!) will truly inherit the earth.

In song after song full of heavy heartbreak, hilarious lampooning, and raise-your-lighter Gospel singalong choruses, Taylor surpasses the already impressive peaks of his past work with what may be the most complete and fulfilling expression of what it means to go on walking with Christ even if that means we have to kick the dust off of our feet and follow him into the wilderness, away from almost everything we ever called “the church.”


The Smile — A Light for Attracting Attention

For Radiohead fans, the release of The Smile’s first full album is likely to inspire mixed feelings — not because it’s disappointing, or that it just makes it that much harder to wait for the next Radiohead album, but because it’s just so brain-bogglingly great that now we don’t know who to root for. Do we want the next Radiohead album? Or another one from The Smile?

If you’re wondering what the difference between the two bands is — beyond the obvious fact that Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are working here with Sons of Kehmet drummer Tom Skinner instead of the rest of Radiohead (bassist Colin Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, and percussionist Phil Selway) — well, it’s hard to say. Yorke is still finding provocative and eloquent ways to lament the evils of con-man authoritarianism: “You Will Never Work in Television Again” paints a sort of monolithic monster of misogyny and bullying, with lines that sound like references to Harvey Weinstein and Silvio Berlusconi, for starters. And “A Hairdryer” is an obvious mockery of Trump and his cronies, with what looks to me like a sharp stab at Ted Cruz. Greenwood’s guitar work is fierce as a fire-breathing dragon; he seems to have fallen back in love with frenetic guitar riffs, tinker-toying loops and solos into dizzying architecture. And both veterans seem exhilarated by their chemistry with Skinner.

And while the rattling anxieties of so many tracks could easily make us think that the band’s name is just sarcasm, there are other songs of that stir up a surprising, substantial sense of hope — particularly the soaring “Free in the Knowledge,” which strikes me as one of the most consoling and inspiring things that Yorke has ever sung. After telling so much truth with the zeal of a prophet, it’s a relief to hear some assurance that he feels

Free in the knowledge
That one day this will end
Free in the knowledge
Everything is change

And this was just a bad moment
We were fumbling around
But we won’t get caught like that
Soldiers on our backs

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how, near the end of the song, Yorke suddenly, sincerely, and meaningfully riffs on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” — both in the melody and in the lyrics:

I talk to the face in the mirror
But he can’t get through
I said, “It’s time that you deliver
We see through you”

Turns out we’re in this together
Both me and you


Big Thief — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You

I only had to wait a month for my favorite album of the year — a double-album! — to arrive, and I was fairly confident that this was the case from the very first listen. Big Thief has impressed me since 2017 when I first NPR’s All Songs Considered play “Mary,” Adrienne Lenker’s exquisite remembrance of an intimate, erotic relationship, from the album Capacity. It seems like such a quiet, intimate reflection, almost too personal to be shared, and yet by its conclusion it feels more like a soaring anthem of longing and enchantment — so much so that it reminded me (yes, I’ll go ahead and say it) of Leonard Cohen’s broken “Hallelujah.”

Then came the hard-rocking relentless of the song “Not” from the 2019 album Two Hands. I couldn’t stop playing it. It had the guts-and-fire combination that had burned the best of late-80s R.E.M. into my DNA. Critics were already hailing them as the greatest rock band happening, and I was a little slow to catch on. But that was the moment that got my full attention and made me realize that I needed to devote significant time and attention to them. In situations like this, I often feel some reluctance. Am I giving in to peer pressure? Am I so susceptible to popular criticism? How do I know the difference between being persuaded to love a band and actually falling in love?

Well, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You seals the deal. If I’d heard this without any frame of reference, without any previous experience of Big Thief, I would be thunderstruck by the range of sounds, the poetry of the lyrics, the compelling braid of childlike-enthusiasm and old-soul wisdom in Lenker’s lyrics and vocals, the simultaneity of punk and folk and country in Buck Meek’s guitars, and the boot-stomp weight and rough-edges of bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Kriychenia.

The cover art strikes me as both an audacious claim and an amusingly self-effacing smirk: It looks like the Beatles’ White Album cover fell into the hands of an imaginative 7-year-old with a charcoal pencil in hand. And that somehow fits: It’s like the band knows that releasing yet another double-album at this stage of their career could be perceived as self-important, but they are caught up in such a fit of playful and productive creativity that they just can’t help themselves. It makes sense when you learn that they recorded this album in four different locations — Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica mountains; Tuscon, Arizona; Telluride, Colorado; and the Catskills — with the deliberate aim of bringing four different sounds and styles together into a kaleidoscopic vision, and they reportedly could have released a version several volumes long with all that they unleashed in those sessions.

Is it uneven? Sure, but in a way that reminds me — yes, indeed — of the Beatles’ White Album. The first three tracks stand, I’ll argue, alongside the great three-song opening sequences of any Great Band Masterpiece: “Change,” “Time Escaping,” and “Spud Infinity” flow as an eloquent revelation of thematic focus — a longing to live meaningfully and touch the transcendent in the midst of what may really be the End Times, embracing the apocalypse with hope and the belief that, as Jedi Master Yoda would insist, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!” That sense that there is something divine at work within the mess of all things, and that we can touch that divinity in the context of love and intimacy, weaves through the entire record, always invigorating and inspiring me. At the conclusion, I’m recalling some lines from U2 — I’m finding the courage to

Walk out into the street
With my arms out and a love that can’t be beat
Neither down nor out
There’s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe…

By the way, seeing Big Thief perform this material live… along with so many highlights from previous releases… was one of several concert-going highs in 2022. I cannot wait to see them again.