2022 represents a year for retaining what had been lost. Last year fizzled out in COVID surges, cancelled tours and album pushbacks that left the end-of-year lists lacking in heavy hitters. It made me question if the music industry was still capable of releasing a steady stream of great-enough music to make blogs like this worthy of operation. What instead 2021 created was a natural backlog waiting to be released for this year. The proof of that is in this list with 50 albums that are easy to love and will be listened to far beyond this year.
This list also features contributions from long-time writers for Bitter Melodies, Happy Haugen and Drew Pearce.
Thank you for reading and reach out if you enjoy the list or want to see any other end-of-year content!
50. Nia Archives – Forbidden Feelingz EP
You love to see when an artist displays their M.O. on the cover of their breakthrough release. Images of Maya Angelou, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Grace Jones overlap with Burial, Radiohead, and Jungle music to display a full-fledged persona out of the gate. Nia Archives comes out of Manchester with a brilliant mix of breakbeat and R&B that represents an exciting path forward in both genres. Hard to find 17 minutes more electrifying from this year.
49. Sam Prekop & John McEntire – Sons Of
Like a lot of great ambient techno releases over the last few years, Sons Of from The Sea and Cake bandmates has not gotten much fanfare; there’s a good chance this is the only year-end list you’ll see this album. It’s almost like feeding a kid vegetables trying to get today’s music critics to appreciate calm techno music. I implore you to listen on the best speakers you have and fall into the textural delights and repetitive bliss of a 24-minute song like “A Yellow Robe”. Getting your proper dose of bleeps and bloops and layered percussions without interruption can do wonders for your state of mind.
48. Mabe Fratti – Se Ve Desde Aquí
Guatemalan cellist and composer Mabe Fratti has existed on the fringe of global experimental art pop for the last few years, and Se Ve Desde Aquí is the most cohesive display of her range. Songs like “Esta Vez” and “Algo Grandioso” are pure chamber pop with Fratti’s cello providing a thudding weightiness to it all. An interlude like “Cuestión de tiempo” is experimental IDM with the cello filtered into this digitized squall. The overall effect is a beautifully-unstable avant-garde masterwork.
47. Gilla Band – Most Normal
Choosing a band name is hard. Watching the Meet Me in the Bathroom doc, it’s easy to see why a band called The Moldy Peaches didn’t exactly break through like their NY counterparts. But I tend to argue that music speaks for itself — Nine Inch Nails and Foo Fighters sound pretty dumb out of context. More recently though, artists have felt pressure to not have their name represent anything culturally decrepit (Lady Antebellum, Viet Cong, Slaves, etc.) Girl Band took justifiable flack from the start with their name, and ten years into their career they finally changed it. All that aside, this album’s one of the best blends of industrial noise and dance punk heard in a while.
46. Sharon Van Etten – We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
Just before the global pandemic and the 2020 wildfires, Sharon Van Etten moved to LA with her family. “I’m looking at our grass / I’m struggling for words” on album opener “Darkness Fades” damn near says it all through the strangleholding experience of being shut inside through climate change and societal failure. The name of the album comes from The Sandlot, which Etten says she watched 100 times with her son; even the most lighthearted of films offers something to describe the malaise we experience.
45. Two Shell – Icons EP
Two Shell’s five song project Icons will hook you on the first listen – they are truly iconic for this body of work. Clocking in at 25 minutes, this EP is full of pieces that come together to form a fully-realized, cohesive project. “Pods” is an insanely catchy track, cementing the duo’s place as one of the best on the UK Bass scene currently. It’s straightforward – although, there are gimmicks involved in their live set – but it doesn’t take away from how memorable this project came to be. Full of incredible production and focusing on creating strong rhythms, Icons is an undeniable hit put out this year. — Happy Haugen
44. Huerco S. – Plonk
Apart from providing a strong five-letter word when you’re stuck on Wordle, Plonk is one of the best litmus tests for your stomach for weird electronic music. Huerco S.’s 2016 classic For Those of You Who Have Never… stayed adrift in a washed-out ambient bliss, but Plonk will pierce your eardrums if you try to mellow out to it. The sheen is gone and what you’re left with is Huerco S.’s dense textural work that has very little regard for standard beats (“Plonk IV” is certainly an exception). As indicative in the album cover, there’s just a hollowed-out feel to it all that is utterly absorbing.
43. Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn – Pigments
Last year’s Second Line was Dawn Richard’s strongest application yet to be included into the R&B cultural zeitgeist, but it’s clear her influences and vision are both too retro and futuristic to be embraced by the most commercial music circles. With Pigments, she says ‘fuck it’ and collaborates with little-known multi-instrumentalist Spencer Zahn to create a spacious ambient nu-jazz album that flows track to track with little interruption. This album is contention for the boldest and calmest record of 2022.
42. Roc Marciano & the Alchemist – The Elephant Man’s Bones
For the dying breed of heavily-lyrical, no-hook rappers, the Alchemist is their greatest refuge. Tracking his collaborations in the last few years offers a smorgasbord of great releases with a few classics in the mix. If The Elephant Man’s Bones isn’t as good as Haram or Alfredo, it’s pretty close. It’s easy to see why rappers like Roc Marciano rap on Alchemist beats; with his vast soundscapes, the pressure to carry a project single-handedly is lifted. Marciano sounds like he’s smooth-sailing rattling off lines like “No plan is foolproof, it’s just an experiment / Always gotta adjust the steering wheel even when the mission is linear.”
41. Angel Olsen – Big Time
Angel Olsen is no stranger to wearing her heart on her sleeve; her lyricism has always felt honest, raw, and extremely personal. And somehow, on Big Time, she has found a way to push the envelope even further, no holding back. It’s the breakup album to top all breakup albums, because it doesn’t sit in its own misery. There’s hope right from the start, on “All The Good Times,” reflections on “Go Home,” and letting go on “Through The Fires.” Olsen sheds the past and welcomes the future throughout Big Time, with an incredible orchestra, vocal performances, and lyrics that are incredibly personal to Olsen, but also to the listener. — Happy Haugen
40. The Weeknd – Dawn FM
Even as he makes his way onto almost every year-end list including this one, the Weeknd still seems so easy to hate. Ever since “Can’t Feel My Face”, he’s been doing shameless ’80s cosplay that works perfectly down the middle. It built up to arguably the biggest song of all time with “Blinding Lights” and the biggest stage in music, the Super Bowl halftime show. This man was introduced “drinking Alizé with his cereal for breakfast”; where’s the thorniness of his previous material? The rub in that narrative is now Dawn FM, an album that confronts the soul-selling emptiness of stardom in all of its promotion and imagery. The other hole in criticism of The Weeknd is that his ’80s cosplay is pretty damn satisfying, and Dawn FM offers his most consistent collection of bangers so far.
39. Soccer Mommy – Sometimes, Forever
It seems as if Soccer Mommy can’t miss right now – Sometimes, Forever, the third album from Sophie Allison and company, is filled with songs that highlight Allison’s ability to craft hooks and choruses that will stay in your head for days and even weeks at a time. “Bones” is a fantastic album opener; you can hear how they’ve been leaning into their shoegaze influences. “Shotgun” feels tense, uneasy, and then the payoff hits with the chorus finally, with a beautiful, dreamy guitar tone taking you throughout the song. “Fire In The Driveway,” one of the more-stripped down tracks, still maintains the passion for experimentation that seems to drive Soccer Mommy right now. Sometimes, Forever is a beautiful record that shows why the band is one of the best in the past decade. — Happy Haugen
38. Pusha T – It’s Almost Dry
How do we feel about an album half-produced by Kanye West in 2022? That’s the awkward (though easily avoidable) position Pusha T is at with It’s Almost Dry. There’s no denying how obviously great these twelve tracks are, seamlessly mixing hard-hitting unique beats with Pusha’s unrelenting swagger and lyrical dexterity. Let’s hope Pusha T finds a non-Kanye path forward without losing a step.
37. Daphni – Cherry
Dan Snaith’s alter, alter, alter-ego (let’s not forget Manitoba, RIP) now has its full-length statement. For those that remember “Yes I Know” back in 2012, it was maybe expected that the sparse deep house side of Snaith’s work would be better explored. The muted response to this album apart from a few outlets suggests this may end up more of a niche cult classic for Snaith completists than properly considered as one of the best electronic releases of the decade. Few artists have pushed themselves to reinvent and forge new ground as much as Snaith over the last twenty years.
36. The 1975 – Being Funny in a Foreign Language
If Matty Healy’s outright obnoxiousness could be stripped away from The 1975, what would the band look like? Maybe less salmonella — don’t eat raw meat, kids — but the band would be a bit of a snooze. It’s the pretentiousness and need to be a ‘voice of the times’ that pushes their standard pop-rock fare into an exciting act worthy of deeper study (the same can be said for Lana Del Rey). That being said, Being Funny represents the band’s evolution into a mature legacy act — no middling instrumentals and easily their most refined, somber, cohesive album. Don’t worry though, Healy can still get in his earnest lyrics on gaslighting and being cancelled on album closer “When We Are Together.”
35. Chat Pile – God’s Country
Few songs have eaten away at me this year like “Why”. Its statement on homelessness is something that many people say, but it’s the forceful tone, repetition, and constant asking of “WHY?!?” that truly stops you dead in your tracks. Sometimes, the academic, verbose, and well-researched argument just won’t reach people. You have to shout and belabor the goddamn point to get it into people’s thick skulls. Chat Pile are a noise metal band that understand the power of music in conveying societal anguish, but they also understand it can’t be half-hearted. They consistently push themselves into maximum dread, anger, and absurdity to get the point across; now that’s a band for our times.
34. Hikaru Utada – BAD MODE
They’ve been one of the biggest blind spots in Western culture for quite some time. Sure, there are the Kingdom Hearts songs, but this is the biggest artist in Japanese music history. The trilogy of First Love, Distance, and Deep River from ’99-’02 account for some of the most important pop music in the world this side of Thriller. It’s odd then to call BAD MODE a breakthrough, but for most, this is their first experience with them. The pop/R&B found on BAD MODE is reminiscent of turn-of-the-century trends with album highlight “Somewhere Near Marseilles” being an 11-minute encapsulation of that era’s sound.
33. Jenny Hval – Classic Objects
Few artists sing so directly to you as Jenny Hval always does. Since apocalyspe, girl in 2015, every new album from Hval has felt like receiving a first transcript from a close friend who wants you to read their work. I know Hval — maybe it’s Jenny because it’s a first-name basis — without ever meeting her. On a song like “Year of Sky”, I know she’s recognizing the gathering of clouds and she’s reading a book on writing and insects because she tells us that’s what’s she doing; she sings through her process of discovery unlike any other. In other places, she’s listening to Alanis Morissette and watching The Passion of Joan of Arc and is sharing quick thoughts on them. Critics that claim her work is inaccessible or pretentious could not be further from the truth. The artists that keep their thoughts vague and edit down until their personality is gone are truly inaccessible.
32. Wet Leg – Wet Leg
Wet Leg took some time to grow on me. On first listen, their straight-forward style came across a bit too simplistic, but over time, the melodies just became undeniable. The guitar riffs of “Angelica” and “I Don’t Wanna Go Out” are sometimes all you need for a great song, but they top them off with strong hooks all the way through. “Chaise Longue” is already an indie radio staple. Of all the Grammy nominees for Best New Artist, Wet Leg should win easily, though of course that has no bearing on their highly-acclaimed status already.
31. black midi – Hellfire
black midi’s explosive third musical endeavor Hellfire is an anxiety-inducing, fascinating album. Right from the start, they hit the ground running and leave no space for any confusion: they’re going to do everything and anything they want to on this album, and you’re gonna hear every second of it. “Sugar/Tzu” features an incredible horn section, if you can pay attention to it while everything else is happening all at once. The striking vocals almost sound like demands and orders, rules to be followed – even though everything on Hellfire is breaking every fathomable rule. — Happy Haugen
30. Cate Le Bon – Pompeii
Cate Le Bon is such a universally-revered figure in music now that you may assume her style has reached a staid, inoffensive status. Her brand of synth-pop is quite weird though; the saxophone you hear on the opener “Dirt on the Bed” echoes like it’s recorded in a cavernous space and gives off the vibes of a hazy scene on a beach from a period piece. There are constant delights like this in the production that sound fussed-over and distinctly Cate Le Bon. She exists in a genre all her own.
29. Grace Ives – Janky Star
If anyone on this list is prepared to lift off into indie darling status, it’s Grace Ives. Janky Star only lasts 27 minutes, but the full shape of a musician’s identity is apparent by the first listen. There are echoes of Lorde in her singing style in the lower register with a bit more of the operatic side of Lykke Li (she’s currently opening up for Li). Her instrumentation is wonderfully DIY with a crisp drum machine in the style of Mica Levi. She’s destined for stardom and arguably attains it already here.
28. Makaya McCraven – In These Times
The best jazz album of 2022 comes from drummer Makaya McCraven who has been one of the most exciting artists in the genre over the last 10 years. His reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s last masterpiece I’m New Here in 2020 was wonderful but maybe hinged too much on hanging on the coattails of legends before. With In These Times, McCraven is the de facto bandleader and he commands an electrifying distillation of what jazz is in 2022. As Andy Cush has noted, McCraven’s drumming tends to work in odd meters, recalling looped samples by producers like J Dilla who would stretch and shorten just based off a “feel”.
27. MJ Lenderman – Boat Songs
Carrying almost a Silkworm sound about him on Boat Songs, MJ Lenderman is a songwriting force to be reckoned with. When Lenderman isn’t playing in Wednesday, another Asheville band, he’s crafting incredible alt-country songs that provide more insight as to how he approaches the guitar in the different projects he plays with. His fuzzed out and overdriven guitar pairs well with the pedal steel on “Toontown,” and the production on “Dan Marino” is an exceptional juxtaposition to the rest of the record, and is also incredibly catchy at that. MJ Lenderman begins to catch his stride on Boat Songs, knowing full well that it’s a marathon race. — Happy Haugen
26. Perfume Genius – Ugly Season
If this counts as “ugly” for Perfume Genius, then board the windows shut when he decides to make “beautiful” music. Mike Hadreas cannot work in any other form than crafting stunningly pretty music. Ugly Season shrouds itself in dense experimental soundscapes like in the 7-minute “Herem”, but the swooping voice and strings can’t help but coalesce into a majestic symphonic statement. His last album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately rightfully has earned the status as his greatest work, but it’s hard not to argue that Ugly Season is his most impressive achievement, inverting his fully-formed style into something far more harrowing and cacophonic.
25. Ravyn Lenae – Hypnos
This debut album has been a long time coming — so long that I thought it already happened. She popped up on most people’s radars with her excellent Crush EP in 2018. It was enough for her to open up for SZA and certainly hold her own. Whether it’s the futuristic bop of “Venom” or acoustic ballad of “Satellites”, Lenae stays effortlessly smooth in her vulnerable falsettos. It all adds up to Lenae occupying the alt-R&B lane with a steady confidence and a maturity beyond her years; maybe it pays off to wait to release a debut album.
24. yeule – Glitch Princess
Every year, some artist releases a startlingly futuristic album — unbound to any genre and genuinely exciting to those that feel like they’ve heard it all before. Oftentimes, that album doesn’t get properly revered in its time. This is where the Singapore-born singer and producer, virtual-reality-embracing, Final Fantasy-referencing yeule comes into play. “Bites on My Neck” and “Don’t Be So Hard on Your Own Beauty” are some of the best songs of the year with infectious melodies and cyber-punk overtones. yeule is the type of artist that affirms the cynics that the youth have got it under control.
23. Weyes Blood – And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow
There’s a moment in every Weyes Blood song when Natalie Mering’s vocals undergo a lush operatic rise that is breathtaking every time. Now on her third critically-revered album, the standard Weyes Blood sound is well-trodden but like an old football adage goes: ‘run it ’til they stop it.’ And in the Darkness… is the second part of her supposed trilogy with 2019’s Titanic Rising. Her last album seemed relatively geared for the masses with singles like “Andromeda” and “Movies”; the songs here ebb and flow more with Mering’s show-stopping vocals front and center.
22. Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul – Topical Dancer
The funniest album of 2022 belongs to Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul. Topical Dancer is brimming with so much personality that they seem to already be taking a victory lap while recording; Adigéry sings sarcastically on the album closer, “Yes, I prefer my first EP too.” Without some of the funkiest beats in quite some time, the critique of liberal rhetoric on songs like “Esperanto” could come across as preachy, but instead, the songs bounce and worm their way into your head like they come from court jesters commenting on our macabre state of politics. Each song is its own finely-tuned Onion essay saying exactly what’s on its audience’s minds.
21. Nilüfer Yanya – Painless
I’ve never heard a Nilüfer Yanya song I dislike. The drums hit like they’re supposed to; the guitar tones match the song’s vibe; Yanya sings so effortlessly cool that you can’t even imagine her face contorting all that much. It’s entirely unpretentious and easy-going that you wonder why a) everybody isn’t in love with everything she does and b) everybody in rock isn’t trying to copy her. She simply should be the standard for indie rock acts to wonder if their work is good enough to be put out. Maybe trying to match a song like “Midnight Sun” is too tall of an order for anyone.
20. Beth Orton – Weather Alive
After thirty years of solid work on the cusp of greatness, Beth Orton finally feels completely in charge of her sound. This is the first album she self-produced, and the songs lean more into ethereal piano-led epics complemented by a star-heavy cast of multi-instrumentalists. The 1-2 punch of “Weather Alive” and “Friday Night” alone is enough to cement the album as an all-time late-career resurgence with Orton’s fractured vocals being wrenched for every emotional beat. The rest of the album never wavers in its wistful soundscapes; some music just sounds like it was made with everyone floating in the air.
19. Rachika Nayar – Heaven Come Crashing
The best progressive electronic/ambient release of 2022 comes from a newcomer, Brooklyn’s Rachika Nayar, and in the revelatory Heaven Come Crashing, you hear her effortlessly borrow and improve upon her contemporaries. “Our Wretched Fantasy” sees Disasterpeace-like soft nostalgic tones form into a swirling ball of energy like OPN’s earlier work. The guitar is employed on “Death & Limerence” in a softer way than Dave Harrington’s work with Nicolas Jaar but is trance-like all the same. Most importantly, a song like the title track knows how to properly build into a percussive climax without losing the tone of the record. One could compare that to Aphex Twin, but you could also just say it’s pure instinct. Rachika Nayar is legit.
18. Florist – Florist
Florist’s self-titled album is certainly the most easy-going on this list, but don’t mistake that for uneventful. It certainly aims for an overarching calm atmosphere through nature recordings (note the cricket embedded all through “Spring in Hours”), but Emily A. Sprague sings in heartbreaking declarative statements that you have to ruminate on during the instrumental tracks. The presence of those instrumentals might turn off casual listeners, but they build up the standalone tracks like connective tissue to each other. It’s not a stretch to call Florist the best-sequenced album this year, maintaining the emotional pull they desire and intentional in all its messiness.
17. FKA Twigs – CAPRISONGS
Following 2019’s MAGDALENE, FKA Twigs’ 2022 project CAPRISONGS marks a departure from the minimalist alt-R&B stylings of past releases, embracing heavier production while still keeping her trademark experimentation intact. “Hey, I made you a mixtape,” the British chanteuse begins in soft,sensual spoken word on opening track “Ride the Dragon,” telling listeners right off the bat that this is no standard studio album. While singles “Tears in the Club” and “Jealousy” prove she can pull off radio friendly R&B-pop anthems, the singer also leans into the industrial sonics typically found in hyperpop on tracks like “Pamplemousse” and “Meta Angel.” Riddled with prolific features including The Weeknd and Shygirl, CAPRISONGS sees FKA Twigs explore dancehall, hip-hop, art pop, and more, ultimately creating a cathartic celebration of Tahliah Barnett’s own musical interests and influences. — Drew Pearce
16. The Smile – A Light for Attracting Attention
Named for “the smile of the guy who lies to you every day,” Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Tom Skinner – the Smile – extend their wings and soar on A Light for Attracting Attention. The synths are comforting, reminiscent of Radiohead, but more grand, more driven, the vision is focused. “You Will Never Work In Television Again” is a surprise song on this record: while Yorke’s snarling vocals are abrasive in their delivery, the song sounds like it should be on a different album than the opener, “The Same.” Once it approaches the breakdown, you hear the similarity shining through. The Smile covers all the bases on their debut, and you’re stuck wanting more once the 53 minutes of the album are over. — Happy Haugen
15. Alex G – God Save the Animals
Alex G’s ability to continuously write captivating music that somehow keeps getting labeled as “slacker rock” is a testament to his musicianship and writing. God Save the Animals isn’t a slacker rock album – it sounds like growth, as if he’s moving forward from the Rules/Trick/DSU label that the media carries with him. This record also just sounds really, really good. “Runner” sounds like it could almost very easily be released in the mid 2000s, but it would not carry the beautiful production with it. And that piano note – yeah, that note – is powerful. God Save the Animals is a fantastic record, and the perfect next step in Alex G’s universe. — Happy Haugen
14. Lucrecia Dalt – ¡Ay!
In an alternate timeline, Lucrecia Dalt is a geotechnical engineer, analyzing rocks and soil to figure out how they can be used for construction. Dalt pursued a seemingly opposite path with experimental Latin American music, but the process may not be so drastically different. Her work forms out of nothing but a few disparate sounds, constructed eventually with a clear purpose of influence and tone. In her time at the label RVNG Intl., Lucrecia Dalt has become a master of the artform, offering up constructions that baffle and awe listeners in equal measure.
13. Destroyer – LABYRINTHITIS
Do you want to see a certain artist’s fanbase have a meltdown? Ask Destroyer fans to rank their 13 studio albums. The gap between, say, 9th or 4th is splitting hairs; that’s the standard of greatness that Dan Bejar and co. has set for himself with the project. The hilarity in it all is that every album has a new identity, a new way of approaching Bejar’s kooky singing style and lyrics. With Labyrinthitis, the soundscape is wider and more unwieldy than it’s been. When it all comes together on a song like “June”, no music was as exciting from this year. In other places, Bejar steps back almost completely like on the title track and “It’s in Your Heart Now,” helping us remember it’s not just him that makes Destroyer special.
12. Björk – Fossora
It plays right into the joke on Björk that she is off in her own little world at all times.
– ‘What’s this album about, Björk?’
Of course, that silly stereotype neglects why she commands such respect and admiration far beyond when casual listeners abandoned ship. She is quite possibly the most hopeful, spiritually-awakening artist working right now. For someone consistently deep in the thickets of philosophical nuance and personal grief, she always concludes to sing through and incorporate less-respected musical instruments (here, a bass clarinet and gong pop up) for something intelligently fun. She’s always creating, singing often from the highest peaks (treetops in “Allow”) and proclaiming what she will do next with her free will.
11. Soul Glo – Diaspora Problems
Philadelphia hardcore legends Soul Glo are on top for a reason – that reason being Diaspora Problems, their third studio album, the first for Epitaph Records. “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?)” is one of the best album openers this year – a strong rhetorical question followed by an incredible breakdown, there’s no stopping Soul Glo, right from the start. They address things with no filter and outline exactly where they stand, from politics to scene beef, don’t cross Soul Glo. They are legends for a reason – it’s because they aren’t afraid to say what they need to say, and that’s why Diaspora Problems is one of the best this year – their blunt honesty reigns supreme throughout the album. — Happy Haugen
10. Special Interest – Endure
Special Interest and Soul Glo are joined at the hip for me when considering what was most exciting about punk music in 2022. The mosh pit is open, but make sure your attention doesn’t divert from why you’re angry in the first place. On “Foul,” singer Alli Logout shouts with a gleeful contempt at the bosses breaking down your body for “double shifts” and “dirty money.” Endure is such an improvement from their last album The Passion Of, and it’s apparent especially on songs like “Midnight Legend” where the influence of House music creates a fully-fledged queer extravaganza.
9. Jockstrap – I Love You Jennifer B
The London duo Jockstrap, consisting of Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye, will throw you for a loop on their Rough Trade debut I Love You Jennifer B. This album is an incredible blend of songwriting and experimentation; neither is more prominent or driving than the other. “Greatest Hits” is a strong example of this: there’s an incredible vocal delivery that sits perfectly alongside a moving electronic string section. In lieu of riffs and solos, the rhythm movement takes the forefront throughout the album, and you wonder how many different rhythms can be made without repeating. Jockstrap has added to that number significantly throughout I Love You Jennifer B. — Happy Haugen
8. Rosalía – MOTOMAMI
When Rosalía wants to make an all-time dance number — like on “BIZCOCHITO” and “SAOKO” — she puts everything into it and redefines the standard for what they should all be. Oh, and they can be done in two minutes or less. “Fuck el estilo / Fuck el stylist” she proclaims on the aforementioned “SAOKO”; it’s kind of her mission statement as she embraces her fuck-all one-woman-wrecking-crew persona with a style all her own. Not speaking Spanish, I simply enjoy Rosalía’s voice and phrasing for it to be enough, but open up translations on songs like “HENTAI” and the worlds of these songs open up as they were intended.
7. Yaya Bey – Remember Your North Star
We are in a post-Solange R&B climate. That’s the first thought that comes to me when listening to Yaya Bey’s underrated breakthrough; from the bare album cover to the softer neo-soul realm of R&B that Yaya Bey harnesses here, the influence is clear. When it comes to admiring people, you could do a lot worse. Like A Seat at the Table, this album flows so effortlessly and spectacularly that you don’t want to put it on shuffle; more albums need 17-second interludes. To be clear, Yaya Bey has her own ground to cover. On songs like “pour up” with DJ Nativesun, there’s a balearic beat/downtempo edge that won’t pop up on any other R&B release. On album highlight “reprise,” she speak-sings her way through her loneliness rising until she concludes “I was born a fly bitch” — this album was proof enough.
6. Bad Bunny – Un Verano Sin Ti
When you consider who is the biggest musician of 2022, two people come to mind. These two people both acted in less-than-mediocre major theatrical releases and dominated the Billboard charts. The crucial difference here is that one is really fucking good at what he does. Bad Bunny was the most-streamed artist of the year once again, and it’s impressive how he keeps outperforming himself. X 100PRE felt like a peak; YHLQMDLG felt like a peak; Un Verano Sin Ti feels like a goddamn peak. “Tití Me Preguntó” led a string of four top ten hits in the US; for a non-English singer to do that, it goes without saying how impressive that is. Bad Bunny could coast on his built-in fanbase like so many of his contemporaries, and yet on songs like “Neverita” and “Después de la Playa,” he finds another strand of dance/pop music to incorporate under his umbrella. Bad Bunny is a cultural force all of his own; the sky’s the limit.
5. SZA – SOS
As of writing this, I’ve had 72 hours to spend with SZA’s great follow-up to Ctrl, and it’s unfortunate that life’s obligations (and, you know, sleeping) took up a good chunk of that time. Just a couple listens to the 23-track, 68-minute album offers at least one clear perspective: SZA has no competition. She recently mentioned how few artists she asked to add features actually followed through — no problem, they’d probably distract from SZA’s all-commanding-yet-fragile persona. For ’90s babies, SZA might be the definitive voice in music right now; she sings with such grace but if you cross her, you’ll hear about it. In time, SOS will almost certainly be as beloved as Ctrl. When all these music outlets have to awkwardly list SOS as the best album of 2023, remember they could’ve just waited a week and honor it properly.
4. Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
The twenty songs found on Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You are some of their best to date – throughout the album, the band locks in as they explore different soundscapes. The title track is a beautiful example of this: it sounds unlike any other Big Thief release, but it still maintains the haunting beauty that makes Big Thief who they are. It’s not limited to acoustic ballads though – “Simulation Swarm” will be a song that goes down as one of their many magnum opuses. Big Thief’s fifth album will be heralded as their White Album, as they settle into this new era of the band. — Happy Haugen
3. Alvvays – Blue Rev
Since dropping Antisocialites in 2017, Canadian indie rock band Alvvays seemed to go through the wringer in the making of their 2022 follow-up. Enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, stolen demos and a flood that almost destroyed all of the quintet’s gear, simply releasing Blue Rev is an achievement in its own right. That said, Alvvays arrives in top form with their signature shoegaze sound, albeit said sound is bigger than ever. With lyrical content ranging from the awkwardness of running into the sister of an ex at the pharmacy or dealing with a DM-sliding reply guy, Alvvays show they still have the uncanny ability to turn any topic into an infectious piece of indie-pop ear candy. Front woman Molly Rankin’s wistful vocal stylings ring in all their shoegaze glory on “Tile By Tile” and “Belinda Says,” but the true highlights are the more buoyant songs with tracks like “After the Earthquake,” “Pomeranian Spinster,” and “Pressed” feeling like a declaration that the group is back and ready to rock. In short, Blue Rev is a triumphant victory in spite of all the obstacles Alvvays overcame to reach the final product. — Drew Pearce
2. Sudan Archives – Natural Brown Prom Queen
You can divide end-of-year lists into two groups this year: ones that include Sudan Archives and ones that don’t. The latter lists can have their opinions properly dismissed for the time being (I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone — 100 albums and this doesn’t make it?!?). Brittney Parks represents just about everything that is exciting about this era of music. First, she’s a violinist — you can hear the violin most prominently on the breakdown of centerpiece “ChevyS10” and throughout “Flue” — but she has no interest in classical approaches with the instrument. She releases music for independent label Stones Throw Records that specializes in experimental hip-hop (they released Madvillainy AND Donuts), and throughout 18 tracks, she fully embodies the spirit of the classic label. Natural Brown Prom Queen is the perfect display of how being unpredictable as an artist never has to devolve into chaos if you’re talented and creative enough. Amidst all the range of influences and tonal shifts, the album never loses sight of Parks’ personal journey. She proclaims on album closer “#513” — “I don’t really want to follow tricky, trendy little things / Hollywood will make you hollow / I’m too rooted in my ways.” Everybody needs to do their part in never uprooting her style.
1. Beyoncé – Renaissance
Amidst all the edits and carving up I did around this list all year, there was one constant. Since July 29th, as the last handclaps and synths of “Summer Renaissance” faded away, Beyoncé had made the album of the year. The only debate is if it’s the best of her career. When you consider the album’s never-wavering focus in tone and mission statement, Renaissance stands alone in Beyoncé’s discography. While her self-titled classic bombards you with all-time bangers, Renaissance intends to keep you in one place: the dance floor. And guess what? Bey’s on a crystal neon horse in the center of it all and you just accept it.
Renaissance is also the culmination of Beyoncé’s ever-growing range of talents, from production to singing. She has spent her whole solo career acquiring and perfecting vocal approaches to the point where a song can just switch gears by the sound of her voice — “Church Girl” and “Alien Superstar” are highlights in this regard. When you consider further that she does the vocal production for every song, you understand how honed in she truly is.
You can skip to any part of any track here, and you’ll never find a moment that doesn’t fit in with anything else and, most importantly, isn’t less than stellar. This is the easiest pick for album of the year since I started the blog in 2016. We’re lucky that one of the biggest stars in the world is making albums as fun and perfect as Renaissance.