The music world has gotten off to a dramatic start in 2022, from Neil Young pulling his catalog off Spotify in protest of Joe Rogan’s podcast to basically everything about the When We Were Young festival. Paste Music has been keeping its collective eye on the ball through it all, following along with January’s new releases and hand-selecting our top 10, from FKA twigs’ debut mixtape and Earl Sweatshirt’s pandemic record to Anaïs Mitchell’s first solo album in almost a decade. Take a long look at—and listen to—our complete list of January 2022’s best albums below.
Listen to our Best Albums of January 2022 playlist on Spotify here.
Amber Mark’s debut album Three Dimensions Deep is being released at a strangely auspicious time, in light of Damon Albarn’s recent ill-considered claim that Taylor Swift “doesn’t write her own songs,” saying that “there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes.” Besides the obvious sexism at play, Albarn (and others like him) overlook the fruitfulness of collaboration and the wider scope that can be achieved when artists work together, rather than indulging in possibly navel-gazing solo notions. While a handful of songs are written by Mark alone (“Most Men,” “On & On,” “Darkside” and “Event Horizon”), Three Dimensions Deep is all the more impressive for its cohesion in sound and message despite the number of collaborators at play, including Jeff Gitelman (Anderson .Paak, The Weeknd, Jorja Smith) and Julian Bunetta (One Direction, Leona Lewis, Jason Derulo). The 17-track record is divided into three acts-without, withheld and within—and draws a considerable amount of inspiration from Mark’s recent interest in astrophysics. The sultry R&B album’s most profound moments emerge when the New York-based singer searches for deeper meaning within herself and others. As she said in a press release, “I can only go as deep as the third dimension as that’s how we see the world, but what about when you start looking to the universe within for answers.” —Clare Martin
Anaïs Mitchell is seemingly always busy. A serial collaborator, Mitchell has spent the last decade-plus either wrapped in the world of Hadestown — the Greek myth-inspired musical she wrote and later adapted for a concept album before it ascended to a hit run on Broadway in 2019 — singing in folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman, or collaborating with the likes of Big Red Machine and others. But it’s been a while since we’ve heard Mitchell singing new music all on her own. Enter the new self-titled record from Mitchell, who last released a proper solo album nearly a decade ago. Anaïs Mitchell finds the accomplished singer/songwriter slowing down, not only in these 10 lovely new songs, but also in her life itself. When COVID-19 first erupted in the U.S., Mitchell left New York City for her grandparents’ old house on the family farm in Vermont and welcomed her second child shortly after. There, she says in the album’s press notes, an “unprecedented stillness” took over, and with it a newfound ease as a narrator. —Ellen Johnson
Connecticut-based emo band Anxious have had a major few years, releasing a critically acclaimed string of EPs that they’ve now finally followed up with the release of their full-length debut album. Little Green House gives them even more space to experiment with the melodic, and often anthemic, take on post-hardcore that the band have become known for. Navigating between harsh, guitar-driven bangers and dream-pop-influenced tracks like closer “You When You’re Gone” with ease, the band still inject bittersweet lyricism and earnest performances into everything they do. The infectious combination of grit and heart solidifies Anxious’ spot as an up-and-coming band to follow. —Elise Soutar
Northwest Indiana quartet Cloakroom are marking their 10th year as a band with Dissolution Wave, their first new album since 2017’s Time Well. They envision the record as “a space western in which an act of theoretical physics—the dissolution wave—wipes out all of humanity’s existing art and abstract thought. In order to keep the world spinning on its axis, songsmiths must fill the ether with their compositions.” If that sounds especially heady, it’s supposed to be: As vocalist/guitarist Doyle Martin explains in a statement, “We lost a couple of close friends over the course of writing this record. Dreaming up another world felt easier to digest than the real nitty-gritty we’re immersed in every day.” Cloakroom have a sound to match their escapist ambitions, equal parts space-rock, heavy shoegaze and post-hardcore, with Martin’s murmurs as the only anchor to solid ground. Like the best of Hum and Ride, this record is hypnotic and immersive, its towering guitars and high-concept songwriting like a doorway to a waking dream. —Scott Russell
Earl Sweatshirt: SICK!
SICK! maintains Earl Sweatshirt’s slowly revealing demeanor, but gives us some of the most clearheaded raps of his career. On “2010,” he talks about his relationship with his mom (“’03, momma rockin’ Liz Claiborne / Had her stressin’ up the wall playin’ Mary J. songs / Rainy day came, couldn’t rinse the stains off”), UCLA Law Professor Cheryl Harris, alluding to the drug and behavioral problems he had that year as Odd Future was blowing up. Backed by Black Noi$e’s potent production, which sounds like walking on gravelly sand at the beach, “Visions” features some of the most upfront lyricism we’ve ever heard from Earl, with him telling us, “I just be weary of self.” Being Earl Sweatshirt isn’t just protecting yourself from the public, but also being self-conscious because of your own inner demons and pain. —Jayson Buford
“I made you a mixtape because when I feel you, I feel me,” FKA twigs casually remarks on “ride the dragon,” the opening track on her debut mixtape CAPRISONGS. The singer’s first foray into the classic format is off-putting at first, since she is one of music’s most progressive pop personalities. Twigs’ most recent album, 2019’s MAGDALENE, was quite the dramatic statement, with religious allusions wrapped tightly in ethereal and operatic vocals, then placed against stirring instrumentation. It felt like at any moment, her voice could shatter like glass and the song would be all the better for it. On CAPRISONGS, the turmoil she carries is palpable, but her disposition is different. There are theatrics, but twigs replaces overwhelming intensity with playfulness and self-awareness. It’s the most confident she’s ever been. —Candace McDuffie
Melbourne-based “computer musician” Katie Dey runs the entire gamut of electronic pop on Forever Music, her Bandcamp-exclusive follow-up to 2020’s Mydata (and 2021 remix record Urdata). Dey’s vocals and lyrics are intertwined in continuous transformation: On gripping opener “unfurl,” she coos over a bouncy synth figure, “i take my medicine / twice daily so that i stay / pretty girl pretty girl,” only to later lament in layered voices, “so hard to be kind / so hard to be girls / pretty girls pretty / evil fucking world.” Dey builds a crystal castle of pulsing bass, hyper-pop pixelations of sound, digital strings and much more, and populates it with her fearless songwriting: “if you ever want my heart / all you have to do is ask / and when eventually i’m gone / you can listen to this song,” she sings on the title track, music made to last. —Scott Russell
Bay Area noise-pop trio Kids on a Crime Spree released their debut record We Love You So Bad in 2011, toeing the line between EP and album at just eight tracks. More than a decade later, singer/songwriter Mario Hernandez, guitarist Bill Evans and drummer Becky Barron returned with their first proper full-length, Fall in Love Not in Line. Written and recorded in Hernandez’s Oakland home studio, the album’s analog textures lend it a sense of timeless intimacy and simplicity; meanwhile, the trio juggle ’60s vocal harmonies and fuzzed-out guitars with sunny ease, and not a track over three minutes. Kids on a Crime Spree’s comeback album is a noise-pop gem, and the ideal antidote to a dreary day. —Scott Russell
After Hours set expectations for The Weeknd. How was Abel Tesfaye going to follow up what was, arguably, one of the best side-twos on a pop record in recent memory? When it dropped, the world had only recently gone to shit, and I approached the songs looking for something revolutionary in its lyricism. But now, there’s something displeasurable about mining for immediate profundity in a world where nothing can quite contextualize the hell we’re living in. And as we are about to hit the second anniversary of the pandemic, I realize that I, and so many others, just ache to experience joy, to share community through goodness and remember what it felt like to dance into writhing bodies as weightless as they were distant. Dawn FM’s story works by avoiding risk and never getting tangled up in itself, taking over as Tesfaye’s best lyrical performance yet. But instrumentally and technically, it’s a near-perfect record; the sexiest hour of songs in years, released during a moment where artists are doing their best to track albums with urgent commentary. Dawn FM’s urgency doesn’t come by way of Tesfaye fashioning a song that teleports us to a specific moment in the pandemic, but rather in how he momentarily transports us out of it. —Matt Mitchell
If we all must fall victims to the ceaseless malaise that is our slowly unfolding apocalypse, it’s at least fortunate that our misery is soundtracked by the quirked-up observers in the current U.K. post-punk scene. Dubbed “The Post-Brexit New Wave,” groups like Squid, Black Country, New Road, and Dry Cleaning have proven themselves compelling cultural narrators, capturing the essence of our entropy through their bluntly disorienting lyrics and often deadpan, ironic styles. Enter Yard Act. A little bit Sleaford Mods, a helping of The Fall and a dash of Pulp, the group craft smart vignettes of modern life with a confident, witty delivery across their debut full-length, The Overload. Be it as someone recently flush with cash observing their own transformation at the hand of wealth, or a football captain whose life was washed away in a sea of disinterest, the sharp observations of vocalist James Smith contort everyday melancholy into a charming self-portrait—functioning like a reminder of the absurdities and pitfalls of life that define and unite us in the human condition. —Jason Friedman
Listen to our Best Albums of January 2022 playlist on Spotify here.