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At the beginning of 2022, nobody really knew what the consequences of two years of pandemical delays and inflationary inversions would be for the music world. At the end, we still don’t. But we do know that all that pent-up recorded music came flooding out. It overwhelmed any hope to keep up—and, going by the best-of-2022 lists that have appeared in the music press so far, any notion of critical consensus.
Aside from Beyoncé’s Renaissance, whose high ranking is mandated by the Constitution, no pop juggernauts are guaranteed a berth, not even Taylor Swift’s Midnights, whose charms don’t seem to be sticking, just over a month after its release. A few other favorites, such as Kendrick Lamar and Mitski, delivered projects many critics found disappointing, myself among them. Then there’s London avant-soul collective Sault, who scrambled all signals by releasing five whole albums in mid-November, too much, too late for the critical masses to digest.
Beyond that, though, the lack of consensus is more of a symptom of an oversupply of excellence. My choices this year were culled from pages and pages of notes and dozens of hours of music. I could swap nearly all of them out for alternatives without too much regret.
Even more than usual, then, please take these lists as personal and subjective, not an attempt to adjudicate the historical record. For both albums and songs, I’ll begin with a dozen picks I want to remark on, then add another 20 with minimal comment—each part in alphabetical order. No artists repeated. I hope you’ll discover some keepers.
The 1975, Being Funny in a Foreign Language
It’s taken me most of the decade to come around to Matty Healy and crew. Their clever pop-wrestles-rock self-consciousness was on the leash of a masculine narcissism that made me feel not much beyond self-hatred. But I was warming, and finally with this fifth album, everything flipped. “I’m sorry about my 20s, I was learnin’ the ropes,” Healy sings, and as dull a truth as it may be, maturity (and sobriety) have done the trick. Now a song like “Part of the Band” finds him musically and lyrically evoking Paul Simon’s 1970s peaks as the culture’s most insightfully self-aware asshole.
Zoh Amba, Bhakti
In short order, this 22-year-old saxophonist from small-town Tennessee slid right into the company of New York avant-garde jazz veterans, offering a startling youthful intensity. This set with pianist Micah Thomas and drummer Tyshawn Sorey may express her practice of Advaita Vedānta Hinduism, but it’s less like gentle meditation and more like an extended cliff dive. Anticipate much more to come.
The Beths, Expert in a Dying Field
If pressed, I’d name this Auckland quartet’s third album my single favorite record of 2022. The title track is certainly my personal No. 1 song. Not only because the title hits uncomfortably close to home, though in the dawning age of A.I., whose field isn’t potentially dying? What’s more, it offers that rarest thing, the minting of a genuinely fresh, resonant metaphor to use in a love song. That’s no fluke from lead singer-songwriter Elizabeth Stokes, whose lyrics and melodies are as wry and subtle as her band is bright and dynamic. The great tradition of New Zealand indie rock—which this week sadly lost one of its founders, Hamish Kilgour of the Clean—is in good hands.
The happiest discovery I’ve ever made through the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast’s annual audience-sourced Summer Strut playlist. Dublin’s Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson (aka CMAT) cheerfully throttles intersecting clichés of country, pop, and rock via witty, belt-alongable songs like “Every Bottle Is My Boyfriend” and “I Don’t Really Care for You.”
Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis/Belladonna
There’s usually an album by this prodigiously lateral-thinking composer-guitarist on my list, and this year there’s a pair. String quartet album Belladonna is the more astringent, while Amaryllis is more lushly multicolored, with a rhythm section and horns joining in. Either way, Halvorson’s ability to rotate musical objects in imaginative space is always mesmeric. And her 2022 Toronto performance with her Code Girl ensemble was one of the best concerts I’ve seen in years.
Jockstrap, I Love You Jennifer B
It felt like everybody fell for the back-and-forth sardonic barbs and hooks of U.K. indie-rock BFF duo Wet Leg earlier this year. Consider Jockstrap’s Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye their equally dry-witted alternate-universe doppelgängers—what Wet Leg’s sisterhood might be like if Björk were their mother. (Her Fossora album deserved more attention, by the way.) Deconstructed folk, hyperpop, and sound sculpture erupt into and out of these songs, pivoting from quips to queasiness moment by moment.
Steve Lacy, Gemini Rights
This album gave 2022 one of the least predictable No. 1 hits ever with “Bad Habit.” I just want to alert you it doesn’t stop there, teasing and tickling the ear and other pleasure centers at queerly off-kilter R&B-jazz-rock angles through each of its smartly concise 35 minutes. If unsated, pair with the erotic R&B of Broken Hearts Club by Syd, Lacy’s bandmate in the group the Internet.*
Willie Nelson, A Beautiful Time
I’m indebted to my Slate predecessor Jody Rosen’s masterful recent New York Times Magazine profile of Willie at 89 for prompting me to pay special attention to the 72nd (!) studio album by the American country-but-also-everything-else treasure. It stands alongside just about anything he’s done, and thus anything anybody’s done. He renders Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” his own as effortlessly as he once assimilated all of Tin Pan Alley into his cosmic mosey.
Porridge Radio, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky
The new wave of talk-singy British post-punk has its answer to the Cure in this rousingly feel-bad band led by the raw-throated Dana Margolin. If a song called “Birthday Party” that makes one jump up and down yelling “I don’t wanna be loved!” over and over and over again is wrong, I don’t wanna be … loved. (Top that, Lesley Gore.)
Cécile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song
Salvant is simply one of the finest contemporary musicians there is. The range of her new album makes the “jazz singer” label irrelevant. Of particular note to 2022’s newfound post–Stranger Things Kate Bush fans: Ghost Song opens with an extraordinary cover of Bush’s foundational spooky hit, “Wuthering Heights.” (And there’s a more expansive live version to be found on YouTube.)
Special Interest, Endure
The B-52s retired this year, so thank goodness and badness we have a ready 21st-century replacement—this raucous gang of genre-hopping New Orleans noise merchants. (“But more political,” some might add, as if the B-52s were not 100 percent political.) The sound of the lifeforce itself, only louder.
Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen
Cincinnati-born violinist and vocalist Brittney Denise Parks’ acclaimed 2019 Art-&-B debut as Sudan Archives, Athena, was indeed exquisite. But somewhat preciously so, at a certain remove. Distance dissolves on Natural Brown Prom Queen, sometimes at the listener’s own risk—once drawn into its intimate interiors, you might suddenly find yourself poked and pushed. And commanded to dance.
Asake, Mr. Money With the Vibe
Beyoncé, Renaissance (read my review)
Eric Chenaux, Say Laura
Alabaster DePlume, Gold
Dry Cleaning, Stumpwork
Fievel is Glauque, Flaming Swords
Aldous Harding, Warm Chris
Veda Hille, Beach Practice
JID, The Forever Story
Miranda Lambert, Palomino (read my review, though it’s grown on me more since then)
Cate Le Bon, Pompeii
Charles Lloyd, Trio of Trios
Mach-Hommy, Balens Cho (released late 2021)
Plains, I Walked With You a Ways
Caitlin Rose, Cazimi (read Slate’s interview)
Stars, From Capelton Hill
The Weeknd, Dawn FM (read my review)
Wet Leg, Wet Leg (hear me discuss on the Culture Gabfest)
Wilco, Cruel Country (read my review)
Priscilla Block, “My Bar”
This Nashville newcomer finally addresses a quandary so many of us have lived through: After the breakup, who gets custody of the bar? (… Er, just me, then?)
Shervin Hajipour, “Baraye”
As the anthem of the women’s and youth uprising in Iran this fall, “Baraye” is objectively the most important song of 2022. (That its writer and singer was arrested after it went viral is unfortunate proof.) But it’s also a beautiful one—even non-speakers of Farsi can appreciate the mounting passion with which Hajipour sings the keyword “baraye,” meaning “for” or “because of,” to begin each line. But read the translation to fully grasp the emotional impact of that poetic device (anaphora) as his roster of causes for the protests accumulates, from civil liberties to economics to a more existential, encompassing anguish.
Justin Hiltner, “1992”
Singer-banjoist Justin Hiltner is a stalwart of both Nashville’s bluegrass scene and its queer community, but he’s yet to put out his own album of original songs. His devastating use of country simplicity on “1992”—in which Hiltner looks back to his birth and imagines another gay man dying of AIDS in the same hospital that day, with tenderness and outrage—makes me want one urgently.
Ice Spice, “Munch”
Maybe this irresistible slice of pop-drill is the start of a legendary career for the Bronx’s Ice Spice. Maybe not. No matter. It has given us the word, the exclamation, the gospel of “munch.” Sometimes that’s all a song has to do.
Noah Kahan, “Stick Season”
One day this summer a friend texted and asked me why she couldn’t stop listening to this strummy Vermont post-collegiate relationship song. I listened and thought, this is not my kind of thing, and then I couldn’t stop listening either, as apparently is true of tens of millions of other people on streaming services. I think the thorn that pierces and holds might be the line about “some version of you/ that I might not have/ but I did not lose,” but why? Other Kahan songs don’t have this effect on me. Send assistance.
Medicine Singers ft. Yonatan Gat and Jaimie Branch, “Sanctuary”
Music lost a lot of people this year, as it does every year, many of them much too young, such as Takeoff of Migos in November and Mimi Parker of Low that same month. One that hit me hard this year was the loss of trumpet player Jaimie Breezy Branch, in August, at 39. I’d only discovered her a few years before, and she’d become one of my absolute favorite musicians for her creative expansiveness and explosive vitality. Among her 2022 recordings was this guest spot with the adventurous East Algonquin powwow group Medicine Singers, and it seems an apt site of remembrance.
Paramore, “This Is Why”
Given that pop-punk is everywhere, genre icons Paramore must number among the most influential groups of 2022. The 18-years-young band alighted briefly this year to offer this bracing musical summation of— gestures around wildly—while promising to return with a full album in 2023.
Peaches, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (live cover, sort of)
The paragon of perversity nudges the dirtiness always just below the surface sheen of this classic Céline Dion power ballad up into the light. The live moment I most regret not seeing in person in 2022. (Also, I’m sure Peaches would join me in wishing Céline all the best in the world with the health struggles she announced this week.)
Soul Glo, “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?)”
It’s been a long time since I was remotely au courant with hardcore (as that phrase proves), but it’s clear there’s been a hell of a lot going on there the past couple of years. Philadelphia’s Soul Glo is serving the genre the racial reckoning that’s been due since the days of Bad Brains. And that’s only part of what’s jaw-dropping about them.
Stromae, “L’enfer” (live on TV)
Americans were less attentive than the rest of the world to the return of this Belgian singer, rapper, and songwriter after eight years’ absence with the virtuosic album Multitude. Even more remarkable, however, was this moment on live French TV news, in which he launched into the Jacques Brel-esque ballad “L’enfer” from a standing start and rearranged the oxygen molecules not just in the studio, but across a nation.
Harry Styles, “As It Was”
It wasn’t just the movie gossip that made it trendy to bash Styles in the latter parts of 2022. It was a kind of general resentment that he dares continue to exist, so pretty, so charming, so unfashionably undestroyed by fame and wealth. Not saying Styles’ music on this year’s Harry’s House album couldn’t be improved, but I’ve yet to run into this hit in the wild without being delighted to hear it. That perfect happy-sad-song alchemy.
Jim White and Mary Margaret O’Hara, “And the Angels Sing”
Fans often lament that there’s never been a follow-up to that staple of greatest-albums-ever lists, 1988’s Miss America by Toronto’s Mary Margaret O’Hara (the sister of Catherine, aka Moira Rose!). And I share that regret. But it’s a misunderstanding that O’Hara never recorded again—there’s quite a bit scattered out there, and she’ll still do it now if you know how to ask. This year, Melbourne art and music festival Rising commissioned this collaboration between her and drummer Jim White. It’s a sample of M2OH in true sound-poetry–improvising, irrepressible form.
Blackpink, “Pink Venom”
Zach Bryan, “Something in the Orange”
Ethel Cain, “American Teenager”
Avram Fefer, “Sweet Fifteen (for G.T.)” (a tribute, with the nonpareil Marc Ribot on guitar, to the late writer and musician Greg Tate, who died late last year)
Hitkidd and GloRilla, “F.N.F. (Let’s Go)”
Julia Jacklin, “Lydia Wears a Cross”
Kendrick Lamar, “N95”
Ashley McBryde, “Brenda Put Your Bra On”
Megan Thee Stallion, “Plan B”
Nicki Minaj, Skeng, et al., “Likkle Miss (The Fine Nine Remix)”
Maren Morris, “Circles Around This Town”
The Mountain Goats, “Bleed Out”
Maggie Rogers, “Anywhere With You”
Sampa the Great, “Bona”
Sunny Sweeney ft. Vince Gill, “Married Alone”
Taylor Swift, “Anti-Hero”
Syd, “Fast Car”
Lainey Wilson, “Heart Like a Truck”
Correction, Dec. 12: This article originally misstated that Steve Lacy was no longer with the group the Internet.