2022 marks the year my part of the world came out of a dark place and the everyday is gradually going back to normal. The virus is still around but the governments of the world have decided it is time to open their countries for the influx of much needed tourist dollars. Concerts are in full swing and every other week is an announcement that a huge act is coming. Just the other day I managed to nab tickets to 告五人 (AccuseFive) and the tickets were gone in less than 30 minutes. Yes, things are definitely back to normal.
Out of all the music I listened to this year it is real easy to pick 6 albums that were in constant rotation in my hifi, my top 6 for 2022. This is a matter of personal taste and I doubt Hikaru Utada, The 1975 and Tears for Fears will feature in many critics’ top album list, but I am no critic.
The pic above featured albums that looked drab with little vibrancy, but the music isn’t. First off is Tears For Fear’s The Tipping Point. After more than a decade, the duo is back, so back with an expansive sound that hits catharsis. The band never feels they are stuck in the 80s. The lyrics have depth and are born from a place of Roland’s traumatic experience. Sometimes great art happens from a place of deep hurt. My favourite track is “Rivers of Mercy”. It is the song that can bring me to the brink of tears and it has the uncanny ability to make time stop. “Bring out the dead tonight / And bathe them in your sacred light to / Wash away the pain / Save me from the shadows / Cry like a siren, the light on my horizon / Drop me in rivers of mercy”.
I am not a big fan of EDM but sometimes when an artiste tweaks the formula in cool ways I will sit up and listen intently. My way into Hikaru Utada’s eighth album Bad Mode was through her Live Sessions from Air Studios (you can find this on Netflix) and with just one track I was hooked. The R&B vibe, the groovy tracks and her crystalline vocals sitting just above the effervescent instrumentation is a potent and infectious combination. The live sessions offer us a golden opportunity to see how the music is organically made and the session artistes are amazing. The one track I listened to repeatedly, and I love playing this track when I drive off to teach my monster class on Sundays, is the theme song from the Evangelion anime, “One Last Kiss”, Song of the Year for me.
I am not a huge fan of hip-hop and rap, but I do listen to Kanye West and Jay-Z, seldom straying far from these two mainstays. Then one fateful day I picked up Kendrick Lamar’s Damn just to make up the numbers for a 5 for $10 sale. I can’t remember what were the other 4 I bought that day, but I listen to Damn a lot. The guy is a damn wordsmith with one hand on the pulse of today’s societal problems. Then I started picking up his previous albums and his latest Mr Morale & the Big Steppers is his most personal one to date. Sitting through this over 70 minutes magnum opus is like you finding yourself in a psychiatrist’s office while you listen to Lamar lay it all out candidly about topics like sex, cancel culture, transgenderism, grief and his struggles with being a father, everything amounts to him trying to find peace amidst the emotional turmoil and to “set his demons straight”. A bold, daring and risky effort, and the reward is manifold.
The 1975 has always made over-the-top albums that are not only long but captures modernity in idiosyncrasies and ironies. With Being Funny in a Foreign Language, frontman Matt Healy has reeled in the wild ideas into a focused and cohesive album. Filled with pop bangers, the band is all the more better for it.
Just like The 1975 album, Taylor Swift’s Midnights is also produced by the hottest record producer right now, Jack Antonoff, but both albums are very different in tone. Midnights is dark-pop with a kaleidoscope of colours that has Swift in confessional autobiographical songwriting mode. Lyrically, this one continues to slice like a sushi knife; Musically, this one soars.
I have been a huge fan of Warpaint since their debut The Fool. “Undertow” always manages to slow time down to a painterly crawl for me. With their latest, their fourth, the band of childhood friends find themselves in an unfamiliar place, with many having to raise a young family and relocating to different cities. I find all of Warpaint’s albums slow-burning shapeshifters, morphing into something incredible through repeated listenings. But with Radiate Like This it was love at first listen. The music doesn’t feel constrained and unlike their other albums actually feels fun to listen to from the get-go. To me, this is their best album thus far.
I just chanced upon this little jam in a basement of the entire album and it’s so fricking good. I have seen them live while they were plugging their first album, but this shows how much they have matured as a band. Stella’s drumming and Jenny’s bass playing are so underrated.
There are 2 Chinese albums that I like this year. First one is Yisa Yu’s (郁可唯) Dear Life. Ever since Warm Water (2014), she always displays new growth with her songs and singing. Her new one is life-affirming, an album we definitely need after the two years of dark times the world and I came out of. This is my favourite track and the verse before the chorus and the lovely chorus are not easy to master. She made it so effortless. The song always puts me in a good place.
Zooey Wonder’s (黃玠瑋) Nomadland is easy listening without the bells and whistles. I can listen to this album while snuggling with a book and when the album ends I would just press play again. There is no artifice in her lovely voice, just a girl laying all her thoughts and emotions out. It might not be an album with big tunes that will bring thousands to a stadium, but it is a voice I will listen to intently in a living room setting.
For movies, I will just select six of my favourites because six makes the perfect collage
Top Gun: Maverick is the rare sequel that betters the original which is a classic. It respects the precedence set, never panders to emotionality and forges a different but familiar path. 2 hours 10 minutes whizzed by in a sonic boom and I felt like buying another ticket the moment it ended. It makes a strong case that cinemas are still relevant in these times.
RRR is short for Rise Roar Revolt. It might as well be Relentless Ruthless Revolutionary, no way do they stand for Rueful Realistic Ridiculous. If you have never been introduced to S.S. Rajamouli’s brand of one-of-a-kind cinema, get ready to have your breath taken away. I swear it feels like he put whatever the hell he dreamt up on the big screen and all ‘em crazy ideas worked like a charm. Get ready to watch this like a giddy young kid. Then go check out Eega and Baahubali.
I couldn’t get into Everything Everywhere All At Once that seems to throw every idea on the wall hoping that something sticks. It felt like it was trying so hard to be different and then it happened; it became better and somewhere in the midst of the chaos it finds its heart – a story about regrets, being contented and a mending of an estranged mother-daughter relationship. Who doesn’t like a mother-daughter story? Michelle Yeoh is a firecracker here and she is in fine form. My favourite scene is the one with the two rocks. I laughed so hard my tears streamed down.
Do we need another Batman reboot? I thought not but that was before I saw this. At 3 hours I be lying if I said time flew by, but Reeves’ superlative command of the atmosphere and the propulsive story made me see past any shortcoming. The Batman doesn’t exploit suffering and violence for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering if one man can make a difference in this bleak world. I want to believe he can.
Decision to Leave is layered and convoluted at the same time, and it absolutely warrants at least two viewings to get every plot intricacy. If the movie doesn’t embrace clarity, it is ravishing to ogle at. The mise-en-scène, coupled with the brilliant cinematography, is gorgeous. Character motivations are drawn like enigmas which will confound most audience, but say all you want, the movie trusts its audience is intelligent enough to understand that the best stories and characters can be many things at once – romantic and cruel, strange and familiar, forlorn and sexy, good and ultimately flawed. It has to be the rare movie that is so sexy without any sex.
Avatar: The Way of Water is a 13-year labour of love. Every frame shows how meticulous James Cameron is. The plot may feel hackneyed, the storytelling feels cliche and the child actors feel like plot movers, but the visuals are stunning, a sumptuous feast for the eyes, like something you have never seen before especially with the scenes featuring water. This is Cameron’s film through and through which sees him borrow ideas from all his films and the action sequences are out of this world. If Top Gun: Maverick makes a case for the relevance of cinema, then Avatar: The Way of Water makes a strong case for 3D. In fact, 3D IMAX is the ONLY way to experience this gargantuan movie.
Honourable Mentions: Turning Red, Prey, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Worst Person in the World, Nope, After Yang, Licorice Pizza
Extraordinary Attorney Woo puts the spotlight on autism and how it can be a superpower rather than a handicap. I have my doubt that in real life a person with autism can become an attorney but the lead actress Park Eun-bin is so winsome I want to believe she has her day in the sun. This a perfect blend of comedy and drama. I like underdog stories because I like to believe the world don’t just turn for people who are rich and powerful. I like to believe a person can turn a perceived weakness into a strength. I want to believe a person can do his or her job so well that he or she edifies the occupation and humankind. This one warms the cockles of the heart and put a smile on my face.
Andor is a slow-burn which will test your patience, but the faithful will be rewarded manifold. The world-building is meticulous and the characters compellingly drawn. It charts the story of how Cassian becomes who he is in Rogue One, and knowing what eventually becomes of him will put a lump in your throat as you watch this. The beauty of the series is its tone which is quite unlike any Star Wars movies and shows. This starts out like a spy thriller which morphs into a heist movie and then it becomes Prison Break in space.
The achievement in the final season of Better Call Saul will go down into the history books. The show moves at the pace of mellifluence, cleverly mixing humour, violence and tragedy. Every build-up of a story arc has its ebb and flow, its rhythm and flow, its own unique slow-boil to perfection, never succumbing to the conventional and the last piece of the puzzle is never revealed until the time is apt. In a busy TV landscape, Better Call Saul has proved so many doubters wrong with some fabulous turns in storytelling. To embark on this project after the seminal Breaking Bad is probably an unwise move, which makes the achievement even more incredible. This is a story of a man who breaks bad because of circumstances but yet has the moral courage to finally break good.
Slow Horses is so fun to watch and at times it’s so funny… I know the next time I listen to Coldplay’s The Scientist I will wear a silly smile. A story of down and out intelligent service officers having a one last romp in the sun to redeem themselves is one cool premise. The kidnapping case is also complex with many twists. But the strongest asset here is the casting of Gary Oldman who is a riot, a sickening but lovable curmudgeon who always throwing sarcasm like arrows at his loser-subjects. As it turns out, all of it is just a front for a high functioning brain that has worked out all the angles. To see how everything unfolds is unbridled joy.
Almost every show out there is a patchwork of familiar storylines and archetypal. Not AppleTV’s Severance. This is the most original show I have seen since… I can’t even remember the last show based an original idea I have seen. I don’t even have the words to describe this. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror (probably just in terms of tone and some specific technology), a page out of a Franz Kafka’s surreal novel and most definitely like a David Lynch mindfuck movie. The subtext is brilliant. I know it definitely skewers the corporate office. This show has the best final episode of any show this year. Brilliant stuff!
At an average runtime of 30 min, The Bear doesn’t waste any time and expositional passages are economically presented, trusting the audience is smart and intrigued enough to connect the dots. The acting is masterclass and the writing stellar. I have never heard and seen Jeremy Allen White and he is absolutely wonderful in this. Watch out for the opening 8 minutes of an episode (ep8?) where White pours his heart out in one sublime take. And talking about one take, watch out for ep7 which is entirely done in one take in the kitchen and out front at the diner. It is a gorgeous episode where it is practically thermal nuclear war within the setting. It is a cacophony of enveloping voices, each fighting to be heard and to hurt. Jeremy Allen White isn’t the only actor you will notice here. There is also Ayo Edebiri who plays the sou chef. She is no one-note character and as the series progresses she will gradually come into her own. In fact, every other character comes superbly formed and developed. This is a plethora of miscreants and egotistical characters, a rag tag team of individual players all playing the game for themselves and it is so cathartic to see them becoming a team. You know what they say: there is no “I” in “team”. I don’t know about you but I know even an adult still craves for positive reinforcement. Watch out for a scene where the sou chef tells a chef, who is probably more than double her age, that her mashed potatoes is good matter-of-factly. Watch that glow on her face when the comment hits her.
Honourable Mentions: Reservation Dogs S2, What We Do in the Shadows S4, Barry S3, Hacks S2, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Yellowjackets
You have reached the end of my favourites this year, but I would like to one last thing. Every year I don’t just watch new stuff and I would like to do a shout-out to the best discovery for me this year, a Korean drama released in 2018…
Based on the stellar Hotel Del Luna, I put this Lee Ji-Eun vehicle in my Netflix watchlist but have not press play until this year. Within minutes I knew it is something we will come to love.
The story is a sheer downer. Park Dong Hoon (Lee Sun-Kyun) is a 40-something dude working at a job eking out a bare existence. The guy is stuck so deep in the rut he doesn’t bother to look up anymore. Then there is Lee Ji An (IU), a temp worker working in the same office as the dude. She is a 20+ woman with a history that is even sadder than the dude’s. Their paths will intersect in such interesting ways.
With two morose characters trying to stay afloat in the quicksand of melancholy, each episode always has a sliver of silver lining that will restore your faith with humankind. Our tears rolled down at the end of ep4 that is sheer masterclass in writing, acting and editing. I shan’t say more.
It does a clever thing over 80% of the 16-episode series in that Ji An eavesdrops on Dong Hoon’s conversations and by extension listens to what he does every day and night. Secretly listening to a person’s everyday activities is nothing new in narratives but what transpires here feels utterly genuine. When Dong Hoon altruistically steps in for Ji An without her presence, her reaction hits a raw nerve because there’s no facade to be put on here. So that one scene when Dong Hoon says Ji An is “family”, her reaction is one for the ages. If your tears don’t roll, your heart must be made of stone.
I know most people associate Kdramas with escapism and fairytale bliss. We come home from a long day of endless slogging and the last thing we want is to watch ”pain” and a repeat of the curve balls thrown at you by life, but I am different and I hope there are others like me out there. I seek understanding and to know I am not going crazy on my own. My Mister is full of humanity and humility. It’s about the vagaries and vicissitudes of life without them being watered down. It’s about selfless acts of kindness that can empower a person to live for one more day.
I have seen many Korean dramas but this is the one time I wish there is a device that can erase my memory of having seen the show just so I can watch it and experience the tsunami of feels again.
That’s it. Thanks for reading. What are your favourite albums, movies and shows this year? Perhaps I miss some great ones.