It’s that time of year when music critics are tasked with shaping the past 12 months into some relatively coherent narrative. It’s maybe a silly (and always an arbitrary) practice, viewing an increasingly incohesive culture through the lens of our individual preferences. But in a year where many floundered more than ever in search of a unifying thread, let me suggest a quick and easy thesis: The voices of Black women triumphed.
I know, what else is new? The dudes (especially the white ones) may get all the accolades, but anyone paying attention has always known that Black women have held popular music together. And after the past decade of pop flattening all genres in its path, no artists are doing more to refashion their own idiosyncratic sounds in the aftermath. Can you even call this stuff R&B anymore? Does it even matter?
As befits our decentralized pop marketplace, there’s a voice for every sensibility out there. Personally, I’m attuned to the self-made vision of Sudan Archives and the uncut romanticism of Syd. Maybe you prefer airy aesthete FKA Twigs or smoothly sexy Ari Lennox. Hell, even Mary J. Blige put out another solid album this year. It’s all good, and thanks to Beyoncé for providing the big tent where we can all gather, regardless of personal preference.
The other big story this year is one this particular uncultured monoglot is ill-suited to weigh in on: a continued erosion of U.S. pop hegemony so unmistakable and thrilling you’d have to be Stephen Miller to deny or regret it. From K-Pop to reggaeton to Aftrobeats, genres that are already dominant worldwide are starting to challenge stateside stars on their own turf. Bad Bunny’s rise to stardom isn’t just the year’s biggest industry story, but a—what’s that they say on Twitter? Cultural reset? (FWIW, Un Verano Sin Ti, brims with star quality and rhythmic versatility, though BB can’t keep the party going for 80 full minutes and I prefer Honduran-Canadian Isabella Lovestory’s Amor Hardcore.) With adventurous ears but lacking the context to evaluate, the best I could do in 2022 was to gravitate toward variations of the African music I’ve loved for 30 years, check in with my old pal Tom Zé, and cosign the candied salaciousness of the Spanish-not-Latin Rosalía. Maybe next year.
As for “pop,” whatever that meant in 2022 (the Encanto soundtrack?), I finally warmed up some to Harry Styles—“hot guy who’s nice to girls” is a persona you’d think more famous lookers would have tried out, and “Matilda” is the mostly sweetly empathetic song of the year. Elsewhere, though, Midnights strikes me as the blandest album of Taylor Swift’s career, and you can’t blame that on Jack Antonoff’s drums alone. She seems to have succumbed to the “just vibes” school of songwriting that’s overrun indie, where mood predominates and a half-dozen listens doesn’t guarantee I’ll remember a lyric or melody.
But listen as widely as I will, I still came back to whatever once was and may yet again be R&B. This open-ended maybe-genre is where the personal lyric has the most potential to become relatable at large, where the avant-garde can be streamlined into something that connects with a popular audience, and where women who deserve to be heard have a voice. I could have packed twice as many R&B-adjacent picks into the 25 albums I selected here if I’d tried.
And on that note, let’s get on to the list. As always, if you don’t see your favorite album below, feel free to imagine it came in at No. 26.
Before she canceled her tour with an announcement that sparked an overdue discussion of the mental health concerns of musicians, Santi White released the best album of her career. Anyone who listened past her playful swoops and sing-song tunes, beyond the melodic basslines and Caribbean lilt, all camouflaging the darkness of her lyrics, shouldn’t have been too surprised by the news. From “My Horror,” for instance: “Think I got a, a hole in my head / I think all the numbness finally sank in / It’s making my head decay.” It speaks worlds of White’s instincts as an artist and not to mention her psychological self-awareness that she marshals her musical ingenuity as a defense of her depression here rather than sulking about it. Like the lady says, “You’ll rise back up if you just shake.” Be well, Santi.
24. Otoboke Beaver
At 18 songs in 21 minutes, this release from the exuberantly noisy Kyoto punk quartet never overstays its welcome. But without tempering their prickly levity or blunt brevity, Otoboke Beaver are, well, honing their craft: Some songs here have sections so memorable you could call them choruses, and clever little guitar bits emerge from the bash ‘n’ clang, which has always been more precise than a quick listen might reveal. If, like me, you don’t speak Japanese, familiarize yourself with their snarky-kawaii song titles. You still won’t know if the hilarious guitar tantrum you’re hearing is “You’re No Hero Shut Up Fuck You Manwhore” or “Dirty Old Fart Waiting for My Reaction,” but knowing it could be either is funny enough.
23. Pusha T
It’s Almost Dry
King Push loves two (and maybe only two) things—selling cocaine and rapping. We only have this Virginia rapper’s word that he excelled at the former, but from his days in the titanium-hard duo Clipse up through his unflashily brilliant solo career, we do know for sure he can sling words. You know what to expect: more gripping true crime narrative, tough guy aphorisms (coke, he says, bestows “white privilege”), and clipped delivery, with production duties split between Pharrell Williams and, yes, some fool name of Kanye West. All three deliver with the consistency you’d hope from your dealers. It’s not quite as terse and focused as Pusha’s 21-minute 2018 collab with West, Daytona. But as ever, he’s cold, cruel, and effective.
22. Ashley McBryde
McBryde makes good on the promise of her brilliant breakout single “One Night Standard” with this often comic, always empathetic survey of the residents of a sharply imagined small town. She never tops the rowdy opener, “Brenda Get Your Bra On,” about newsy neighbors rubbernecking during a domestic in a trailer park. But just about every song gives up a recognizable character worth meeting: a small town lonely women whose life peaked with a county fair blue ribbon; dogs who witness each of their owners’ peccadillos; a ball field groundskeeper who waxes philosophical; bored marrieds seeking flings in the local missed connections section. And then she brings it on home with an unexpected moment of solidarity: “Small town women ain’t built to get along / But you burn one, boy, you burn us all.”
21. Tom Zé
The 86-year-old São Paulo trickster’s latest is… a philological argument? Zé contends that Brazilian Portuguese was inflected with African influences that made it vowel-centered and musical, while pure European Portuguese is a clumsy “rush of consonants.” Wait? Where are you all going? Come back! There’s not a trace of the academic in this music: On the very first track, Zé and his female chorus, bolstered by kazoos, transform the melody into a donkey bray, and it just gets sillier and more brilliant from there. Hell, one song, and I may never know why, is about New York area codes. All the while, that mutant samba-rock beat never stops shuffling underneath. This isn’t exactly where I’d suggest you make this genius’s acquaintance. But Zé’s work has been widely available in the U.S. for 30 years. What are you waiting for?
Too Much to Ask
Wait, did I just say guitar bands came up short on good jokes in 2022? Apologies to font of one liners Greg Katz, who spits out winners like “I’m doing nothing / Like melatonin” as though they just occurred to him. As always, the ‘Face’s M.O. is to embrace the ever-increasing absurdity of everyday life ’cause what else ya gonna do? When the dumpster fire gets too big, you just gotta find a bigger dumpster. I feel like a dope for overlooking their Talking Heads influence (more on their sound than sensibility) till they played a full set of that band’s tunes last New Year’s Eve, but it’s harder to miss as they become a tighter band. Anyway, my personal favorite here is “You Always Want to Bomb the Middle East,” which offers plenty of alternatively pleasurable diversions.
19. Kendrick Lamar
Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers
Yes, yes, “heavy is the head” and all that—we know, Kendrick. Those of us who don’t routinely get called The Greatest Rapper Alive may have trouble relating to much of the pain and confusion K. Dot expresses here. Like a lot of big shots, he worries about the fates, feelings, and reputations of other big shots too much. He gets tripped up on the still ground-breaking trans-sympathetic “Auntie Diaries” by stupidly thinking F-slurs add depth and color and accuracy to his verses. And unlike the jazz-hop experimentalism of To Pimp a Butterfly or the hard directness of Damn, the beats here won’t save Kendrick from himself. But! (You knew that was coming.) That just means his self-questioning stands out as more raw than ever, and, musically, his various tones of voice and cadence interact to create a complicated blur of perspectives. There are struggles with his masculinity, examinations of how pain is passed on through generations of Black families, and a vocal feature from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. A hip-hop culture hero sounding less fucked up than this in 2022 would sound like a lie. Even when he puzzles needlessly over “cancel culture,” he doesn’t sound pigheaded, just confused. Who isn’t these days?
Here’s why you don’t publish your best of list in early December. Is it CTRL? No, it is not CTRL. But 2022 ain’t 2017 either, and the wistful songpoet we met then would like to introduce us to the woman the world (i.e., men) made her in the interim, while she bided her time in her record label’s holding cell. Not that SZA’’s abandoned her high spirits. “Kill Bill” (the one that goes “I might kill my ex”) is plenty upbeat for a murder ballad. “F2F” mashes pop-country into pop-punk—“I fuck him ‘cause I miss you” is a sentiment both genres have in common, if not in so many words. And the new raw SZA expresses herself plainly with “My past can’t escape me / My pussy precedes me” and “Them ‘ho’ accusations weak / Them ‘bitch’ accusations true.” As before, her calling card is that uniquely jazzy vocal style, floating around the melody with casual indifference, touching down when needed. SZA should stay away from that Bridgers girl though. She’s a bad influence.
17. Amanda Shires
Take It Like a Man
Shires has catapulted from “fiery session fiddler who writes pretty good” to among the sharpest pens in country music over her past few albums, and she belts ‘em with a voice to match—big but with ragged hints of vulnerability. She mixes expressions of fierce sexual obsession (“Call it bad behavior / Maybe I like strangers”) and sharply detailed reporting on domestic dissatisfaction verging on breakups (“You slammed the door so hard I still hear rattling spoons”). Though I know art ain’t autobiography, I still hope she and her guitarist—Jason Isbell, aka Mr. Shires—had some long talks with each other afterward.
If you thought there were no genres still standing, listen to this Iberian not Caribbean rulebreaker flatten a panoply of Latin dance styles into her own irregular bump-didi-bump. Her translated lyrics read dirtier than the uncanny flutter of her is-it-real-or-is-it-Auto-Tune? high notes suggest. Whether deconstructing Daddy Yankee on “Saoko,” indulging the richness of her soprano over a Burial sample on “Candy,” riddling the filthy sweet “Hentai” with machine-gun fills, declaring herself the spiritual (and carnal) descendent of “Lil’ Kim, Tego, and M.I.A.” on her sole flamenco tune, she flaunts the brazen entitlement that’s essential to great pop, capitalist bastard child that it is. Even the Weeknd makes a duet partner in this context. Maybe singing in English in his problem?
15. Wet Leg
This Isle of Man duo’s deadpan girlishness cries out for the sort of cutesy adjectives like “cheeky” or “naughty” that usually send me in full flight elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers ain’t half clever, that their tunes don’t stick, or that their cheek doesn’t have plenty of tongue in it. Sure, you’re sick of “Chaise Longue.” So try “Angelica,” about an annoying party (“I don’t even know what I’m doing here / I was told that there would be free beer”) or “Wet Dream” (“What makes you think you’re good enough / To think about me when you’re touching yourself?”). In a year when guitar bands didn’t have too many new tricks or tunes (or, lawd knows, jokes), who am I to deny their cheap thrills?
14. Billy Woods
The second album of 2022 from the no-nonsense New York rapper gets the nod from me over the also solid, critically favored Aethiope—just barely, but year-end tallying is a game of inches. My rationale? Personally, I value Woods more as an imagist phrasemaker than as a teller of hard truths or coherent stories, and he’s just slightly more quotable here. “Loved that girl, but knew we wouldn’t work like Harden on the Rockets.” “Win or lose the Maoists is still glum.” “My character arc: Rolling Loud to Shakespeare in the Park.” And there’s more where that came from. His rhymes are heavier on detail than context, giving them a surreal, uneven mix of clarity and fog, and producer Messiah Muzik adds ghostly, often jazzy melodic textures to beats that stutter along his syncopated flow.
13. Miranda Lambert
Lord, she was born a ramblin’ gal. You can tell Miranda’s matured because she’s traded in the bloodlust of her early years for a wanderlust she may never outgrow, though she might not again commit to it as thematically as she does here. She parties on a riverboat with the B-52s, she covers Mick Jagger’s “Wandering Spirit,” she resigns herself to life as a perpetual tourist. I prefer the acoustic campfire versions of “Waxahachie” and “In His Arms” from last year’s The Marfa Tapes, but I welcome the new studio takes too, especially since both songs register the emotional price of rambling for too long. Nearly two decades into her career, not yet 40, with not one dud album to date—calling Lambert the greatest popular country artist of her generation is starting to sound like an understatement.
Broken Hearts Club
Congrats to Steve Lacy on his success, but this song cycle about the lifespan of a love affair (which Lacy played on and helped produce) is the best album this year from a member of the brilliant R&B band The Internet. No commitment-phobe she, Syd is ready to “Tie the Knot” on track two; by mid-album she and her babe are softly but unmistakably tiffing, well on their way to the climactic yet understated two-fer of “Goodbye My Love” and “Missing Out.” Not since Janet’s heyday has a breathy voice struck the balance between romantic and lustful so naturally, and the phased guitars, pillowy synths, and drums reverbed into infinity complement her vocals perfectly. Step inside, make yourself comfy, and sniffle quietly.
11. Oumou Sangaré
The Malian vocal powerhouse was visiting Baltimore when the pandemic hit; stranded stateside, she bought a house and wrote the songs for a new album. Here, the n’goni playing of the great Mamadou Sidibé, always a key component of Sangaré’s Wassoulou sound, decorates a spine of blues guitar, courtesy of French guitarist Pascal Danaë, which straightens Sangaré’s circular rhythms into a more linear groove. As ever her voice is strong but soothing, rising from a calm center to a serrated higher range, whether she’s celebrating her homeland, mourning for it, or just missing it.
10. The Beths
Expert in a Dying Field
New Zealand guitar-pop is indomitable. The island nation is a bottomless well of simple-but-smart bands who will continue to jangle, chime, and sing about their very ordinary problems while the rest of us are drinking our own pee to survive. The title track from the Beths’ third and best album lands the relationship analogy of the year, zeroing in on how all your knowledge about a lover, from the intimate to the mundane, becomes instantly useless once you break up. Elizabeth Stokes is a brilliant songwriter whose gift with the phrase and the hook never falters here, and Jonathan Pearce is no slouch on guitar, leaning into a more rocking power pop than the Auckland norm.
The Forever Story
Like a lot of relatively successful younger rappers, J.I.D.’s big story is “How did I get here?” Unlike most, he’s got a unique tale (he quit football for rhyming) and his storytelling skills are a match for his versatile arsenal of flows. He digs into the specifics of a poor but not loveless childhood where lesser rappers settle for generalities. And his best anecdote is about how he and his fam got into a brawl at a club with someone who dissed his sister, and how their parents would have been proud.
I Walked With You A Ways
Katie Crutchfield’s album of downhome, largely acoustic duets with Jess Williamson is so prettily understated that at first I was ready to call it a diverting little side project to tide us over while we awaited the new Waxahatchee. But the harmonies kept me listening till the tunes sank in so deep I felt like a judgy chump. Come for the surface gorgeousness, stay for some of the most clear-eyed and even-keeled breakup autopsies known to country music. These range from that’s-how-the-cookie-crumbles (“It’s really no one’s fault but I tried to warn you”) to reasonable boundary-setting (“If you can’t do better than that, babe, I got a problem with it”) before ending with the near-zen acceptance of the hymn-like title track: “I’ll be better all my days / ‘Cause I walked with you a ways.” Most importantly for the future, Crutchfield has achieved a level of insightful plainspokeness she seemed unlikely to reach back in her poetically clotted youth. And yes, I will be revisiting Williamson’s back catalog.
7. Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul
Afro-Euro electropop at its most charmingly sardonic. Adigéry sings sweetly and speaks with cool humor, whether she’s skewering both language-policing and foot-in-mouth microaggressions simultaneously (“Don’t say ‘But I’m allowed to say that because I grew up in a black neighborhood’ / Say ‘My n… eighbor’”), fashioning a shimmery hook out of “Go back to your country where you belong,” or just allowing her laugh to be digitally manipulated for the length of a track. Popul handles the squelchy beats, nothing revolutionary but clever and catchy. They treat racism in both its outward virulent and more subtly liberal forms as a bad joke. Which won’t be enough to contain either mutation of the virus, no, but sure could lighten the emotional load for millions of people whose very existence makes the idea of borders an irrational legal fiction. And how often do you get to dance to the comedy record of the year?
Modern celebrity being what it is, Her Majestbey could no more toss off a fun little dance-pop record than she could drop in someplace for a quick burger and fries without getting mobbed. She’s a text, poor thing, her work sure to be weighted down with exegesis within hours of each new release. So of course this call to party is defined as much by its ambition as its groove—she’s determined to gather unto herself every rhythm from the past 50 years, and to show her work. Dense, with disparate beats and styles grinding up against each other, the mood is less DJ set than club crawl, working the tension between the sweaty reality of a night out and the promised transcendence of the dancefloor. And like after any good Saturday night, tomorrow morning you’ll remember the best parts: the church girls actin’ loose, the “Cuff It” crew fuckin’ up the night, the “revolutionary” (heh, sure) call to quit your job. Her chameleonic vocal shapeshifting remains astonishing, and there’s something (as always) both imperial and empathetic about how Bey incorporates (double meaning intended) her influences into her singular being. She’s every woman.
5. The Mountain Goats
I’d grown so acclimated to the thoughtfully arranged chamber rock John Darnielle has favored recently that the straightforward, guitar-first production here threw me off at first. But it suits his undimmed intensity and current theme of desperate violent men pushed into living out their action-flick fantasies—call this Nebraska with no apologies, thick distortion, and Jon Wurster on drums. From “I’m doing this for revenge” on “Training Montage” through the self-explanatory title of “I’m Gonna Make You Suffer” to “We may run out of bullets / We’re never gonna run out of hostages,” renegades if not outright mercenaries who may or may not be righteous as they believe themselves level threats of almost biblical vengeance on unnamed foes. Along the way, Darnielle takes the time to correct the historical record with “We worship nothing in the foxholes / John Rambo never went to Vietnam” before closing with the haplessly resigned “Bleed Out”: “I’m gonna make a gigantic mess / But it meant something important I guess.” A great rock album in 2022. Who’d a-guessed it?
4. Black Thought and Danger Mouse
Comfort music for old heads, sure. But one of the privileges of age is not having to give a hoot if the music that hits you hardest happens to be in fashion this week. Is any MC of his (my) generation still so committed to elevating his craft, while sounding so engaged in each bar you can’t accuse him of mere aestheticism? Danger Mouse, never a sure bet with me, earns his co-billing with textured soul samples, and if you still need convincing, does DOOM rhyming with effortless virtuosity from beyond the grave sweeten the deal? As though you need more than a hard-driving lyricist whose flow wrenches words into new shapes, who takes pleasure in his vocabulary for its own sake and finds meaning in the serendipity of rhyme. Whatever I’m getting from the best popular young rappers today, it ain’t that.
3. Lady Aicha & Pisko Crane’s Original Fulu Miziki of Kinshasa
N’Djila Wa Mudujimu
Kinshasa once produced the most elegant popular music in the world, the liquid guitar lines of Congolese rumba bands that belied central Africa’s turbulent history. But AIDS, expatriation, and underdevelopment have consigned the musicians of this century to slums and detritus. Pisko Crane emerges from that scrap heap, constructing his band’s instruments from actual trash for a sound that recalls the bootstrap DIY of Congotronics but with more raucous melodic variety. Not often that an origin story so metaphorically rich results in music this undeniable, and it wouldn’t work without Aicha’s clarion voice cutting through the clatter.
2. Big Thief
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
A 20-track, 80-minute album reveals either your limitations or the depths of your resources, a real challenge for a band whose songs often seemed held together by some ineffable gestalt camaraderie. Big Thief’s lyrical and musical curiosity is inexhaustible, their joyful clatter like folk music being invented on the fly by rootless weirdos who’d only read about it in a book and adhere to no tradition. What’s more, they struck a motherlode of tunes here. Adrianne Lenker is equally comfortable cooliy mulling over death and impermanence or making “Last one there is a potato knish” rhyme with “finish.” And if anyone’s heard a prettier melody than “No Reason” this year I expect to see a link in my inbox by EOD. They sound so pleased to be alive in spite of it all that maybe the rest of us should give it a shot.
1. Sudan Archives
Natural Brown Prom Queen
I walked into Brittney Parks’s Fine Line show in October an admirer and walked out a believer. A classically trained, Cincinnati-born, L.A.-based violinist with a background in, yes, the music of Sudan, the one-woman band DBA Sudan Archives juggles a lot of modifiers, but she does so deftly. Her beats flow easily, with double-time hand claps occasionally revving things up, and her tunes stream into even dazzlingly unexpected rivulets. She has a gift for toying with restraint and release, emitting the least exhibitionist “I just wanna have my titties out” you’ve ever heard and reserving one of her sweetest melodies for a line about how her Chicago cousins will fuck you up. She’s never less than her own unassuming self, which she expresses without ever straining to be heard, making her most plainspoken sentiments sound like moments of self-discovery. “I’m not average”? ”I don’t want no struggles, I don’t want no fears”? Me either, Britt.