And … we’re back? Despite a lingering pandemic and fears of a grim recession, the year in music was a party. After the doldrums of the social-distancing days, superstars and art kids alike finally unleashed albums that were like overstuffed grab bags—jumbled, generous, even happily tacky. The outburst of kinesis and creativity was oddly unifying. Whereas 2021 invited each listener to search for personal paths out of limbo, the music of 2022 sent us running up the same hill.
Follow along on Spotify.
1. Beyoncé, Renaissance
Soon after Beyoncé’s new epic started shaking dance floors this past July, a talking point emerged among would-be killjoys. The songwriting and production credits on Renaissance are like dissertation footnotes, listing dozens of names: current hitmakers, long-dead legends, niche-beloved groundbreakers. Certain critics highlighted this fact to deflate the portrayals of Beyoncé as an innovator or auteur. Is she taking credit for a meal she didn’t cook?
Such questions tended to reveal that the questioner hadn’t listened to the album very seriously. Because the second you hit “Play” on Renaissance, the notion of Beyoncé as anything but in control becomes laughable. This is a deeply weird album—jagged, disorienting, outrageous, with a scope and vision that takes multiple plays to sink in. Only one brain could have, or rather would have, dreamed this thing up. As Beyoncé herself puts it, on a song whose psychoactive potpourri of noise provides evidence of her claim, “No one else in this world can think like me.”
Unique doesn’t mean “wholly original,” and part of Beyoncé’s brilliance—a form of humility, really—is that she celebrates the connection between lineage and individuality. In the manner of DJ sets and hip-hop mixtapes, Renaissance is an inspired work of sampling. It not only cuts and pastes beats from other songs but also remixes lyrical themes, acoustical vibes, and vocal microinflections from Black and queer club pioneers across history and scenes. Within songs and the broader album, fission crackles, but syncopated songcraft—repetition, surprise, repetition, surprise, repetition, repetition, surprise, surprise—keeps the energy stable.
If anything about Renaissance does risk inauthenticity, it is Beyoncé’s messianic club-kid persona, all growls and purrs and underground slang. This woman who can’t go out for pizza without being mobbed is now presenting herself as a regular of block parties and vogue balls, building a revolution rave by rave. But that sense of strain, of pretending, gives the album its soul. Pop music can invite consumers to imagine themselves as someone more fabulous and free than they really are. Beyoncé has availed herself of the same powers, at a time when we all feel the itch to escape.
Listen to: “Virgo’s Groove”
2. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
One of the most hyped indie bands of recent years finally clicked for me because of a song about potatoes and elbows. On “Spud Infinity,” the singer Adrianne Lenker affects an Appalachian-granny yowl to ramble about the connectedness of almost every object—starches, bodies, body parts—in the universe. Laden with the cartoon-arousal boings of a jaw harp, the song pierces the preconceptions a skeptical listener might bring to a quartet of scruffy Brooklynites influenced by folk music and Radiohead. In the place of self-seriousness and fake profundity, you have jokes, plus actual profundity.
Like a lot of significant 2022 releases, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is a double album, reflecting the jamming time afforded by the early pandemic. But unlike a lot of double albums, its length connotes lightness. Each love-song-slash-metaphysical-treatise is casually intricate, seeming like both a composed document and a snapshot in time. The band is clearly working in a few traditions: the daze of college rock, the humility of country music, the sacredness of campfire singing. But its creative source is the here and now, the life forms and doodads that aren’t so much around us as with us, moving together in time.
Listen to: “Change”
3. Wet Leg, Wet Leg
What’s nice about the present ’90s revival is the return not of baggy denim but of the withering, banality-busting sarcasm of that decade’s cool kids. Wet Leg, a duo of English rockers in their 20s, use deadpan vocals worthy of Cake and tingling guitar worthy of Pixies to issue a Daria-level eyeroll. The targets of this snark attack? Modern horrors such as social media and classic ones such as dirtbag exes. A wisp of upbeat melody ties together the band’s lyrical barbs and woozy rhythm changes, hinting at hope within the jadedness. After all, the band suggests, a sneer is just a sign of wanting something better, more nourishing, than what’s on offer.
Listen to: “Angelica”
4. Daphni, Cherry
House and techno’s pulse has governed nightlife for decades, but at certain moments—such as this year—dance music returns to the popular consciousness as an object of study. So the timing was right for a new collection by Daphni, the club-focused incarnation of Dan Snaith, best known as the avant-pop wizard Caribou. Although his beats percolate steadily, they take on a skewed, prismatic shimmer thanks to ugly-pretty synth tones and polyrhythms comprehensible only by calculator. Both minimalist and overwhelming, sunset-luminous and anxiety-darkened, Cherry’s songs seem like they should collapse under contradiction. But they stay together, focusing the brain by challenging it, as reality so often does.
Listen to: “Clavicle”
5. Saba, Few Good Things
Whether the example is Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, or a random teenager getting big on TikTok, fame can make musical memoirists fall into self-pity, resulting in an overabundance of art about being rich and lonely. Thankfully, Saba, the brainily vulnerable Chicago rapper of late-2010s acclaim, has made a post-boom album that’s anything but insular. Few Good Things does feature some nice humblebrags: “I’ma order pasta that I cannot properly pronounce.” But the album’s smooth storytelling, fiery lamentations, and ambivalent reveries fixate on Saba’s hometown community, which he’s desperate to not leave behind. Inequality and beat-the-odds success come to seem part of a maddening equation that will be solved only through group effort. May Saba keep rising, and his loved ones with him.
Listen to: “One Way or Every N**** With a Budget”
6. FKA Twigs, Caprisongs
The mixtape mentality was strong in pop this year. Multiple stars (see Nos. 1 and 10 on this list) built momentum out of fractured yet flowing musical ideas, thereby making the case for artist-led curation in our algorithmic-playlist era. Stitching reggae, drill, and operatic balladry together with bits of heard-through-the-wall conversation, FKA Twigs’s Caprisongs is the most fabulously haphazard of such exercises. While retaining the angelic quiver of her voice, Twigs swaps the starkness of her previous work for abundance. The point is to show that multitudes—of feelings within a person, or of people “walking through the London city lights”—can be inseparable, like the sounds on a homemade cassette.
Listen to: “Jealousy” (featuring Rema)
7. Steve Lacy, Gemini Rights
In the library of stereotypes that astrology has become in the 21st century, the Gemini is a feared source of chaos. But the breakout rock-and-R&B craftsman of the year channeled his two-sidedness to create a pungent chill, a spiky equilibrium. The No. 1 hit “Bad Habit” drew listeners in by pleasantly flip-flopping between desire and disdain, using tentative harmonies and declarative drums. Whether laying down flamenco guitars or horny raps, and whether serenading or dissing male or female lovers, Lacy spends the rest of Gemini Rights capturing the cyclonic nature of infatuation—while keeping the listener sheltered in the storm’s eye.
Listen to: “Sunshine” (featuring Fousheé)
8. Björk, Fossora
In a year when avant-pop stars such as Rosalía thrilled with volcanic vocals and cybernetic beats, their foremother dug in yet-stranger soil. Judging from Björk’s history of leading the cultural pack, the jocular clarinets and bashing percussion of her fungus-inspired tenth album may someday seem less novel than they now do. Really, what makes Fossora notable is its limpid and varied songwriting. In her radically precise manner, Björk croons of motherhood, mortality, and hiking with a hot boyfriend. My profile of her left out that, when we met in Iceland, she held forth on not just mushrooms and music but coffee and TV: the stuff of living in the now, which Björk always tills in fresh ways.
Listen to: “Sorrowful Soil”
9. El Alfa, Sabiduria
Following the pandemic’s slowdowns, tempos are now trending upward in all sorts of nightclubs, which is a fortuitous development for the Dominican style known as dembow. El Alfa, the king of this speedy cousin to reggaeton, raps at an auctioneer’s pace and with a Muppet’s abandon, using beats that any hyperpop hipster could shake their mullet to. Whenever I needed an adrenaline spike, the first of El Alfa’s two 2022 albums was my reliable resource. His whirling glee even benefits U.S. doofuses such as Lil Pump and French Montana (rappers who feature on the album), revealing them to be specialists in the great silliness that keeps our species alive.
10. The Weeknd, Dawn FM
That’s it—after this year, no more ’80s revivals. Between Stranger Things’ boost for Kate Bush, and The Weeknd’s hauntingly catchy album inspired by death and Depeche Mode, we’ve surely maxed out on Reagan-era nostalgia. Assisted by the experimental producer Oneohtrix Point Never and the melody master Max Martin, Dawn FM is as detail-gilded as a studded jacket and as replayable as Pac-Man. On certain listens, Jim Carrey’s new-age interludes about the afterlife even got me verklempt. Synth-pop and the supernatural are a perfect pair, but how could they ever be more deliciously rendered than this?
Listen to: “Less Than Zero”