Jon Pareles | Jon Caramanica | Lindsay Zoladz
A Cornucopia of Ideas
If there’s one thing that unites my favorite albums of 2022, it’s a sense of creative abundance: of ideas spilling out so fast that songs can barely contain them, and of artists ready to follow their impulses toward revelatory extremes. No need to hold back: In 2022, more was more.
1. Beyoncé, ‘Renaissance’
A disco revival gathered momentum during the pandemic years, as musicians and listeners found themselves yearning for the joys of sweaty, uninhibited communal gatherings. Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” also looks back to dance floor styles, but it goes much further. It’s not merely a nostalgic re-creation of a fondly remembered era. With leathery vocals and visceral but multileveled beats, it’s an excursion through layers of club culture, connecting with pride, pleasure and self-definition and taking no guff from anyone.
2. Rosalía, ‘Motomami’
“I transform myself,” Rosalía declares in the first song on “Motomami,” and throughout the album she does just that: playfully, impulsively and very purposefully smashing together musical styles and verbal tactics. Every track morphs as it unfolds, hopping across the Americas and back to Spain, rarely giving away where it’s headed. Along the way, Rosalía presents herself as fragile at one moment and invincible the next.
3. Beth Orton, ‘Weather Alive’
Over ghostly, circling piano motifs, the songs on “Weather Alive” meditate on longing and memory, connection and solitude, nature and time. Beth Orton’s voice stays unguarded in both its delicacy and its flaws, while her production cradles it in patiently undulating arrangements, floating acoustic instruments in electronic spaces; the songs linger until they become hypnotic.
4. Sudan Archives, ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’
Sudan Archives — the songwriter, singer and violinist Brittney Denise Parks — juggles the many conflicting pressures and aspirations of being young, Black, female, artistic, carnal, career-minded and social on “Natural Brown Prom Queen.” The music is kaleidoscopic, deploying funk, electronics, hip-hop beats, jazz, chamber-music arrangements and the African fiddle riffs that inspired Sudan Archives’ name, barely keeping up with her ambitions.
5. iLe, ‘Nacarile’
Vulnerability and courage are never far apart on “Nacarile,” which is Puerto Rican slang for “No way!” The songwriter Ileana Cabra, who records as iLe, sings about political and feminist self-assertion alongside songs about toxic and tempting romances. Each of the 11 songs conjures its own sound — acoustic bolero, orchestral ballad, Afro-Caribbean drums, gravity-defying electronics — for music that’s richly rooted but never constrained.
6. Sylvan Esso, ‘No Rules Sandy’
Sylvan Esso’s electronic pop goes gleefully haywire on “No Rules Sandy,” the fourth studio album by the duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn. In songs that leap between the everyday and the metaphysical, they maintain the transparency that has always defined their music, but skew and tweak the details: moving vocals off the beat, slipping in hints of cross rhythms, always keeping serious ideas lighter than air.
7. black midi, ‘Hellfire’
The human condition is nasty, brutish and ferociously virtuosic on the third album by the British band black midi. In songs that flaunt the complexity and dissonance of prog-rock and the bitter angularity of post-punk — while stirring in ideas from jazz, classical music, funk, salsa and flamenco — loathsome characters do odious things. But the music turns grotesquerie into exhilaration.
8. Björk, ‘Fossora’
Forget pop comforts: Björk has other plans on “Fossora,” leaning toward chamber music at one moment and blunt impact the next. Her new songs contemplate earthy fertility and the continuity of generations, using rugged electronic sounds, families of acoustic instruments and the very human passion of her voice. As Björk looks all the way back to a primordial “Ancestress,” she’s also determined for her music to move ahead.
9. Billy Woods, ‘Aethiopes’
In hip-hop that’s simultaneously grimy and cerebral, upholding a New York City legacy, the prolific Billy Woods raps about colonialism, poverty, personal memories and ruthless historical forces. The unsettling productions, by Preservation, draw on Ethiopian music (of course) as well as funk, jazz, reggae, soundtracks, Balinese gamelan and many murkier sources, and Woods is joined by equally determined guest rappers. The tracks are dense, and well worth decoding.
10. Porridge Radio, ‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky’
Catharsis is the agenda for Porridge Radio, the British band led by Dana Margolin. In songs that wrestle with connection and autonomy, her vocals declaim, sob and gasp; her lyrics blurt out dilemmas and demand responses that may not arrive. The arrangements sound live and jammy, harnessing post-punk and psychedelia for emotional crescendos.
And 15 more, alphabetically:
Rauw Alejandro, “Saturno”
Bad Bunny, “Un Verano Sin Ti”
Congotronics International, “Where’s the One?”
Jorge Drexler, “Tinto y Tiempo”
Ethel Cain, “Preacher’s Daughter”
FKA twigs, “Caprisongs”
Horsegirl, “Versions of Modern Performance”
Jenny Hval, “Classic Objects”
Rokia Koné & Jacknife Lee, “Bamanan”
Kendrick Lamar, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers”
Makaya McCraven, “In These Times”
Mitski, “Laurel Hell”
Bonnie Raitt, “Just Like That…”
Soul Glo, “Diaspora Problems”
Soccer Mommy, “Sometimes, Forever”
Letting It All Go
Judging by these albums, it was a year of release: superstars opting to get physical, neat songs spilling over with unruly emotions, artists relinquishing familiar beliefs, singing and rapping teetering on the edge of control. Disruption is in the air — being contentedly static is no longer enough.
1. Zach Bryan, ‘American Heartbreak’
An astonishing feat of emotionally acute songwriting and shredded-artery sentiment, Zach Bryan’s mainstream breakthrough is a heavy lift, in all senses: 34 songs, and 10 times as many small details that kick you in the sternum. “Summertime Blues,” the EP he released two months later, is maybe even better — bare bones and almost harried, it’s even more evidence of a faucet that simply won’t stop spilling.
2. Rosalía, ‘Motomami’
When Rosalía first broke through, she was engaged in a tug of war between tradition and modernity. But the dissonance she’s navigating on “Motomami” is more profound: cultivating a futurist aesthetic that spans multiple genres, eras and philosophies, making for an album as radical and syncretic as any released by a global superstar in the last few years.
3. Drake, ‘Honestly, Nevermind’
The better of the two Drake albums this year was the less expected one: a collection of earthen, sensual, soulful house music. In a career defined by blurring borders, this was less a plot twist than a quick spotlight on an underappreciated character: body music that keeps the heart palpitating.
4. Priscilla Block, ‘Welcome to the Block Party’
The most promising Nashville debut of the year belonged to Priscilla Block, a pop-friendly singer-songwriter with a robust grasp of country tradition. Her first album includes a few rowdy bridge-burners and a gaggle of torch songs sung in a sweet but unshakable voice.
5. Beyoncé, ‘Renaissance’
“Renaissance” is a few things that Beyoncé’s music hasn’t always been: chaotic, breathy, unrelentingly sweaty, appealingly frayed. A titanic collection of club music, it has an almost gravitational urgency, emphasizing the primal pull of the dance floor, where putting on airs is not an option.
6. Bartees Strange, ‘Farm to Table’
Bartees Strange has quite a voice, or perhaps voices. He sings with huskiness and nimbleness, plangency and viscosity — sometimes all of these at once. On his eruptive second album, he writes about growth and self-doubt, Phoebe Bridgers and George Floyd, all unified by singing that’s brimming with heart and pluck and can pivot on a dime.
7. Gulch’s final show, Sound & Fury Festival, July 31, 2022
Not an album per se, but the video of this 34-minute concert — on the StayThicc YouTube channel — is a hair-raising document of this San Jose, Calif., hardcore band at its punishing peak, the fan fervor it inspired, and the ridiculous, anticlimactic conclusion in which power to the stage was abruptly turned off.
8. 42 Dugg & EST Gee, ‘Last Ones Left’
These two, stars in their own right, have all the makings of a great rap duo — EST Gee, from Louisville, Ky., is steely and narratively vivid, his verses square-cornered and bleak. 42 Dugg, from Detroit, delivers nasal, curvy passages flecked with scars of having seen too much.
9. Asake, ‘Mr. Money With the Vibe’
The debut album from the rising Nigerian star Asake is both appealingly grounded and aiming for an astral plane. Taking in Afrobeats, fuji and amapiano, but also flickers of jazz fusion and even gospel, Asake’s music is enveloping and inspirational, mellow but assured.
10. Bad Boy Chiller Crew, ‘Disrespectful’
There’s an inherent silliness to bouncy club music, songs designed to trigger full-scale abandon. Bad Boy Chiller Crew — effectively a comedy troupe wearing the costume of a music collective — amplifies and underscores that tendency on its second album. The songs — faithful bassline and garage tunes that sound like shout-rapping over a D.J. mix — are absurd and uncanny, an invitation to dance and a metacommentary on letting loose.
11. Bad Bunny, ‘Un Verano Sin Ti’
The defining pop star of 2022, Bad Bunny is fully untethered from expectations. His fourth solo album is a sunshine beam, taking reggaeton and Latin trap as starting points and embracing styles from across the Caribbean, from mambo to dembow.
12. Bandmanrill, ‘Club Godfather’
Bandmanrill emerged last year from the Jersey drill scene, which takes the drill template of immediate, punchy rapping and matches it with up-tempo Jersey club music. In short order, he became one of drill’s premier songwriters, but his debut, “Club Godfather,” already shows him stretching beyond the genre’s boundaries.
13. Special Interest, ‘Endure’
The ecstatically erratic third album from the New Orleans band Special Interest is full of politically minded punk-funk. It is a howling good time, but also nervous and tense, with songs that are agitated, but more crucially, agitating.
And 16 more, alphabetically:
The 1975, “Being Funny in a Foreign Language”
Cash Cobain & Chow Lee, “2 Slizzy 2 Sexy (Deluxe)”
Tyler Childers, “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?”
Fred again.., “Actual Life 3 (January 1 — September 9, 2022)”
Giveon, “Give or Take”
Lil Durk, “7220”
Mavi, “Laughing So Hard, It Hurts”
Tate McRae, “I Used to Think I Could Fly”
Rachika Nayar, “Heaven Come Crashing”
Harry Styles, “Harry’s House”
Earl Sweatshirt, “Sick!”
Rod Wave, “Beautiful Mind”
The Weeknd, “Dawn FM”
YoungBoy Never Broke Again, “Colors”
Honorary late 2021 release: Kay Flock, “The D.O.A. Tape”
Inner Lives, Shared Wide
This year I found myself drawn to records that created their own immersive worlds that reflected the bold, distinct perspective of their creators — a trick that quite a few big-budget pop albums pulled off, sure, but plenty of smaller indie records did, too, with just as much personality and flair.
1. Grace Ives, ‘Janky Star’
Small, quirky pop albums are a dime a dozen these days, but they rarely come with the wit, vision and lyrical personality of this one by Grace Ives. For the last half year, the Brooklyn musician’s sharp, frequently hilarious observations have stuck in my mind as often as her infectious, synth-driven melodies: the overdraft fee from a $100 A.T.M. withdrawal on “Loose”; the flirty way she co-opts business jargon like “circle back” on “Angel of Business.” Or how about this deadpan punchline on the jangly, crush-struck “Shelley”: “I wonder what she wants for dinner/She’s really got me looking inward.” Ives’s voice across these 10 tracks is weighty but nimble, her ear for melody idiosyncratic but always immediate and true. By the end of “Janky Star,” it’s hard not to be charmed by the warm interiority of her sound and her peculiar, canted vision of the world.
2. Beyoncé, ‘Renaissance’
Along this dazzling and immaculately sequenced joyride through the history of dance music, Beyoncé celebrates her own uniqueness while also decentering herself, refracting the disco ball’s spotlight so it illuminates a long line of forebears: Grace Jones, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, Robin S., Moi Renee, Nile Rodgers, Big Freedia and of course her very own Uncle Jonny. Bless whoever dosed the lemonade at this party: “Renaissance” is Queen Bey at her loosest, funniest, sweatiest and — as she testifies on the sublime “Church Girl” — her most transcendently free.
3. Rosalía, ‘Motomami’
On the singular “Motomami,” one of the coolest pop stars on the planet mashes up innumerable genres and cultural influences to create her own sonic world. Rosalía combines the braggadocio of your favorite rapper (“Rosa! Sin tarjeta!”) with the emotional intensity of the flamenco legend Carmen Amaya (“G3 N15”), effortlessly pivoting between stylistic extremes that would give a less innovative talent whiplash.
4. Alex G, ‘God Save the Animals’
The Philly indie-rock everydude Alex Giannascoli reimagines the New Testament as a fanzine, sort of (“God is my designer, Jesus is my lawyer”), and the miracle is how well it actually works. The sudden jolts of sonic abrasion — a hyperpop breakdown in the middle of an acoustic ballad about the innocence of children, say — and the unbroken through line of weirdness do not diminish the radical empathy and poignant sincerity that is this record’s beating heart.
5. Florence + the Machine, ‘Dance Fever’
On her fifth, and best, studio album with her trusty Machine, Florence Welch’s imperial goddess persona comes crashing down to earth, or maybe somewhere even less dignified: “The bathroom tiles were cool against my head, I pressed my forehead to the floor and prayed for a trap door,” she sings on the gut-wrenching closer “Morning Elvis,” a painstakingly detailed depiction of a breakdown. Welch has never been sadder (“Back in Town”), more provocative (“King,” “Girls Against God”), or funnier (“And it’s good to be alive, crying into cereal at midnight”) than she is on the kaleidoscopic “Dance Fever,” an album that constantly, seamlessly moves between the macro and the micro, from an inquisitive exploration of gender and power to a blown-open window in the heart.
6. Nilüfer Yanya, ‘Painless’
London’s Nilüfer Yanya harnesses the antsy buzz of modern anxiety and transforms it into something not just manageable but actually beautiful, thanks to her elegant melodies and the lavender calm of her voice. The magnificent “Painless” is so well paced that one of the peak musical moments of the year comes at its direct center: that beat when the hitherto coiled “Midnight Sun” suddenly blooms into a reverie of guitar distortion.
7. Alvvays, ‘Blue Rev’
This Toronto five-piece makes — and on its third album, “Blue Rev,” perfects — a kind of inverted shoegaze: big-hearted, smeary dream-pop oriented toward the sky. Molly Rankin’s achingly sweet voice cuts through the woolly squall of distortion as she sings of the thwarted expectations and indistinguishable hope of early adulthood: “I find myself paralyzed/Knowing all too well, terrified/But I’ll find my way.”
8. Sudan Archives, ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’
Get comfy when Sudan Archives welcomes you into her domicile on the mood-setting opener “Home Maker” — you’re going to want to stay awhile. The prismatic songwriter born Brittney Denise Parks showcases the many facets of her musical personality — singing, rapping, playing violin — on the immersive, genre-hopping “Natural Brown Prom Queen,” an 18-track song-of-self filled to the brim with smart, sensual and continuously adventurous ideas.
9. Angel Olsen, ‘Big Time’
To address some radical changes in her life — coming out as queer just before both her parents died — the indie star Angel Olsen turns, incongruously, to the traditionally minded sounds of vintage country and torch-song pop. Turns out they suit the wailing grandeur of her voice perfectly, though, and she can’t help but make them her own thanks to the fiery force of her musical personality.
10. Miranda Lambert, ‘Palomino’
Miranda Lambert’s wandering spirit is given plenty of room to roam on the majestic “Palomino,” a travelogue across not just the interstate highway system but the many musical stylings Lambert can command: honky-tonk country (“Geraldene”), Petty-esque Southern rock (“Strange”) and even some heartstring-tugging folk balladry (“Carousel”). Mamas, this is what it sounds like when you let your daughters grow up to be cowboys.
11. Amanda Shires, ‘Take It Like a Man’
Here’s the spirit of outlaw country in 2022: a fearless woman gathering all her strength and belting out her truths with a poet’s diction and a bird of prey’s voice. “Come on, I dare you, make me feel something again,” the singer/songwriter/fiddle player Amanda Shires trills at the beginning of “Take It Like a Man,” and then she spends the next 40 minutes rising to her own challenge.
12. The Weeknd, ‘Dawn FM’
If you’ve ever wondered what the finale of “All That Jazz” would sound like had it been scored by Oneohtrix Point Never, have I got the record for you. The Weeknd follows the huge success of “After Hours” with some high-concept and deeply stirring experimentation on the probing “Dawn FM,” reimagining the pop album as a kind of death dream without sacrificing the hooks.
13. Aldous Harding, ‘Warm Chris’
The New Zealand eccentric Aldous Harding is a folk-rock harlequin, clowning and mugging her way through beguilingly catchy tunes. In the weird world of her fourth album, “Warm Chris,” there’s not a lot of because, just a lot of deadpan, and glorious, is.
And 12 more very good records worth mentioning:
The 1975, “Being Funny in a Foreign Language”
Bad Bunny, “Un Verano Sin Ti”
Yaya Bey, “Remember Your North Star”
Kendrick Lamar, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers”
Julianna Riolino, “All Blue”
Syd, “Broken Hearts Club”
Sharon Van Etten, “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong”
The Weather Station, “How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars”
Weyes Blood, “And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow”
Wet Leg, “Wet Leg”
Wilco, “Cruel Country”