What a year for music—any of my top half-dozen or so could have been Number One some other year. But these are my faves, with pop idols, guitar bangers, rap poets, disco visionaries. All these albums keep giving up new surprises for me. The double-digit years are always pivotal for music—’66, ’77, ’88, ’99 were four of the coolest music years ever. (’11 and ’55 were bangers, too. Y2K wasn’t so hot, but at least it had a kick-ass Madonna album.) 2022 felt more like Neil Young’s 22 than Taylor Swift’s, but the sick sonic minds on this list kept opening up private dream spaces. Farewell to the year of Feelin’ 22. Bring on Nobody Likes You When You’re ’23.
20. Blackpink, Born Pink
Jisoo, Lisa, Jennie, and Rosé step out as glam queens on Born Pink—it’s the great album they’ve always had in them. The “Lovesick Girls” of K-pop are out for blood—when Rosé yells “I’m so rock & roll!” she isn’t kidding. “Pink Venom” is a perfect blast of Sunset Strip hair-metal cosplay—even the title sounds like the name of a bar band playing Poison and Motley Crue covers at the sleaziest dive in town. But the killer is “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” a guitar banger full of freestyle synth-horns and crazed hormones. The only skip is the weepy ballad, but that’s just because Blackpink sound most themselves when they swagger like they know they’re the coolest girls in the room. And they always are.
19. Pusha T, It’s Almost Dry
So…artistic evolution. A cool idea in theory, right? But then there’s Pusha T, the Lemmy of coke rap, who keeps making great records by sticking to the same dope-game turf he locked down years ago, when he was “Grindin’” with the Clipse. King Push calls himself “cocaine’s Dr. Seuss,” and if it sounds like he’s been here before, it’s because he never left. (As he put it once, his specialty is “Nosetalgia.”) He flexes with guest shots from Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, Pharrell, his Clipse brother No Malice. But Lil Uzi Vert has the best line, in “Scrape It Off”: “Like, what the motherfuck’s a roof?”
18. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Cool It Down
Karen O gives her soul testimony on Cool It Down, making this feel like a rock companion to the SZA album. (Which is way up on this list, obviously.) The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the unkillable vampires from the NYC indie-sleaze Meet Me In The Bathroom era. As Nick Zinner told me in 2013. “Nobody thought we’d last long enough to make ONE album, including us.” But Karen, Nick, and Brian Chase have their own unique punk juju, and they’ve never made a less-than-amazing record. (Mosquito gets unfairly slept on, mostly because of the butt-ugly cover art, but even that one had the glam-disco banger “Despair.”) The YYYs flaunt it all over Cool It Down, dancing into the apocalypse. The show-stopper: “Blacktop,” which mixes Eno synth sex and Dylan Thomas poetry as Karen testifies, “I sang in my chains like the sea!” Twenty years from “Black Tongue” to “Blacktop”—that’s 7,300 dates with the night, and not a boring moment in the batch.
17. Momma, Household Name
Allegra Weingarten and Etta Friedman, two best friends barely into their 20s, make a real corker of a summer guitar record with Household Name. Like so much of 2022’s coolest music, it’s the sound of young women stealing everything worth stealing from Pavement or the Breeders or Veruca Salt, but with their own heartfelt twist. The best way to start the morning this year was to hit play on Household Name and feel revved up for today like it’s a brand new adventure.
16. FKA Twigs, Caprisongs
FKA Twigs begins Caprisongs with the sound of a cassette popping in, as she says, “Hey, I made you a mixtape.” Never a bad way for a love story to begin, even if this one is all about Twigs learning to embrace herself. When she asks, “You wanna get a bit of my mystique?” the only answer is yes.
15. Black Star, No Fear of Time
I totally get why you thought the Talib Kweli/Yasiin Bey reunion was a letdown, but as a Nineties bitch who has prayed for this album on more floors than I care to count, I do not share your dismay. (Hell, what could be more authentically Nineties than disappointing everyone? How about refusing to release it on streaming services?) The Brooklyn underground rap duo made history with Rawkus classics like “Definition,” but 25 years later, they’re trying to bring their moment forward into the future. Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) sums it up in “No Fear of Time” when he says, “We assemble an ark and just float on.” The album ends with a sample from the late Greg Tate, one of the realest minds ever to write about music, whose obit I had to write almost exactly a year ago. Tate gives a (typically) mind-blowing talk about rap artistry; the song ends with him saying, “I mean, one of the things we know about MCs is, man, they just have phenomenal memories.” His voice echoes into space—“phenomenal memories, phenomenal memories”—and resonates into the future. The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past—or as Tate used to say, “Hip-hop is ancestor worship.”
14. Water Damage, Repeater
Quite possibly my favorite 22-minute psych-freak noise-punk drone of the year. And that’s just Side One. The Austin collective Water Damage lay down a monster groove (two drummers? three?) with amps groaning in sweet feedback agony. The band’s motto: “Maximal Repetition Minimal Deviation.” Their excellent debut album comes in handy for those days when you just wanna blast some cat-hair clogs out of your brain. Like the Stooges’ Fun House, but without fun or a house. Side Two is a little faster.
13. Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart
The Long Beach MC has built one of the past decade’s most brilliant careers, with classics like Prima Donna and Big Fish Theory, the self-proclaimed “gangsta gone Gatsby.” He raps about love gone bad, but Ramona Park isn’t a woman—it’s the neighborhood where he grew up to the sound of gunfire. Staples goes from the summer fun of “Lemonade” (with Ty Dolla $ign) to “The Blues,” where he faces the final curtains with the confession, “Money made me numb.”
12. Wet Leg, Wet Leg
Wet Leg’s Big D of a debut still feels fresh even after a year of heavy rotation. Truly a band the world was waiting for: Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers, from the Isle of Wight, crank out a barrage of sarcastic kiss-offs, guitars, sex, revenge, bubble baths. Best exit line: “If you were better to me then maybe I’d consider fucking you goodbye.” Also, finding out that everybody’s been pronouncing “chaise lounge” wrong all these years? Bombshell. More, please.
11. JID, The Forever Story
Five years after he blew up with The Never Story, the Atlanta MC goes deep into his origin story, unpacking his street life and family history for a hard-hitting memoir. “Sistanem” is a pained chronicle of making peace with a distant sister, admitting, “I’m not the only one affected by poison in the mind,” trying to unload “misogynistic mindsets.” He exorcises these mindsets in his Ari Lennox duet “Can’t Make You Change,” admitting “TLC would call me a scrub / Back when I was / But now I’m getting it, slow as fuck.” In the 7-minute memoir “2007,” he recalls growing up to the sound of his idol J. Cole, with Cole and JID’s dad helping him tell the story.
10. Ribbon Stage, Hit With The Most
Ribbon Stage go for punk kicks on their effervescent debut Hit With The Most. They’re three wiseass Brooklyn/Olympia upstarts: guitarist Jolie M-A, drummer Dave Sweetie, singer/bassist Anni Hilator. They bashed out their album down in the basement, DIY style. (The credits say, “Mixed by Capt. Tripps Ballsington.”) But the tunes are irresistible. “Playing Possum” is about listening to the Velvet Underground all night (“Left the 45 on / Another Mo Tucker song”) to recover from a break-up. Yet they shrug off the pain: “I’ve gotten harder to please / And I liked you better when I was 18.” Punk rock—what a concept!
9. Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen
L.A. violinist and auteur Brittney Denise Parks drops a constantly inventive collage, with songs in the key of her life as a 20-something Black artist with a fearless sonic imagination. These songs are full of moody R&B, hip-hop loops, gospel handclaps, electro glitches, Sudanese folk fiddle. But she makes it all sound like her, from “Selfish Soul” to “Milk Me.” The year’s best line about gardening: “Only bad bitches in my trellis.”
8. Craig Finn, A Legacy of Rentals
The Hold Steady frontman set out to capture the classic vibe of “Wichita Lineman” for a whole album—widescreen pop beauty, full of lush strings, but a cold-eyed sense of doom. It sounds like an impossible task, but he gets there in A Legacy of Rentals, with producer Josh Kaufman, singer Cassandra Jenkins, and a 14-piece orchestra. Finn sings about capitalism and addiction like they’re the same thing, with a cast of dealers and drifters and hustlers, with lines like “The devil makes his money on the small deals” or “Her dress all done in daffodils / The sticker on her skateboard said ‘Speed Kills.’” Craig Finn has been rock’s hardest-hitting storyteller for years, but he’s still on the line.
7. Horsegirl, Versions of Modern Performance
Horsegirl broke out of the buzzing Chicago indie scene this year with their own fresh sound. These three Gen Z women might be still too young to get into bars—hence their teen lament, “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty).” But if you’re a fiend for guitars, Horsegirl deliver the clang you’ve been craving—their bang-up debut Versions of Modern Performance is a blast of top-notch six-string fuzz that brings a sly new twist to the grooves of Pavement, the Breeders, or the Pastels. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley play on the not-quite-ironic “Beautiful Song.” The world will never know why it took so long for somebody to think this one up, but Horsegirl flip a Gang of Four song into their own perfect hook: “Sometimes I’m thinking that I lust you / But I know it’s only love.”
6. Rosalía, Motomami
Rosalía makes a radically inventive greatest-hits album for all her different voices, with “Yo me transformo” as her mission statement. On Motomami, she mixes up genres, beats, moods—in any other era, this album would have been an avant-garde experiment for a cult audience, but Rosalía made it a global blockbuster. She taps into the glam-pop legacy of Spain, a nation with a glorious New Wave history that’s hugely underrated (and almost unknown) in the U.S., whether it’s stars like Mecano and Alaska y Dinarama or underground bands like Esplendor Geométrico. But Rosalía approaches every style of music in her own weird way—and she has no non-weird ways.
5. Pictoria Vark, The Parts I Dread
When I want to remember the summer of 2022, I’ll remember how Pictoria Vark ruined my life with a succinct yet poignant set of indie tunes evoking the way a wandering heart covers ground in her twenties, from Wyoming roads to suburban lawns, looking up at the stars of Iowa but dreaming of a friendship left behind in Brooklyn. Plus “I Can’t Bike,” a long-overdue pedestrian anthem with a kick-ass guitar solo. Best line, from “Friend Song”: “This city won’t ever be the same / The mystery stars will spell your name.”
P.S. Pictoria Vark ruined my life in another way, because at her NYC show, on her pre-show playlist, she included The Veronicas’ 2007 hit “Untouched,” a song I’d totally forgotten about, but one I’ve been playing obsessively ever since. Music, man—when people warn you it’s dangerous, they’re right.
4. SZA, SOS
This album has only existed for a couple of weeks, but I already can’t imagine a world without it. As someone who has spent the past five years trying and failing to learn all the life lessons SZA was teaching on CTRL, I had high hopes for SOS, but SZA tops them all, even if it turns out she’s been trying to learn the same lessons. The trio of “Snooze”/“Notice Me”/“Gone Girl” is ten minutes of soul-deep perfection. There’s so much complex poetic writing on this album, it’s tough to pick a favorite line. “I don’t wanna be your girlfriend, I’m just tryna be your person”? “Now that I’ve ruined everything I’m so fucking free”? “I gave all my special away to a loser”? But the line I keep coming back to is one of the simplest: “Is it bad that I want more?”
3. Harry Styles, Harry’s House
Harry, you’re no good alone. Harry’s House is his best album, not to mention the only hit album of 2022 to include both an epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson and the hook “cocaine sideboob, choke her with a sea view.” It’s a vibrant, playful, vividly emotional song cycle about finding different kinds of home on the run. Harry zips from Tokyo-style city pop (“Music for a Sushi Restaurant”) to disco flash (“Satellite”) to the woozy hippie shagadelia (“Grapejuice”). “As It Was” feels so vulnerable, yet it exploded into the year’s monster radio hit—it took six months for this song to set foot outside the Top Five. (Right, A-Ha, but it’s got slightly more Scritti Politti.) It has the same beating heart as “Matilda,” a powerful guitar ballad about watching a friend heal from family trauma, not knowing what to say, just listening and empathizing. Sure wish this song existed when I was 19, but so grateful the world has it now.
2. Taylor Swift, Midnights
Checkmate, she couldn’t lose. There’s no parallel to Taylor in history: 16 years after her debut, she’s on one of the all-time hot streaks, at the peak of her genius and impact, with a prolific rush of 7 Number One albums in 5 years. Let’s put it this way: 16 years after his first hit, Bowie was bottoming out in his Tonight era. Dylan was on Street Legal. Springsteen was making Human Touch. This just never happens. I love how so many of Taylor’s favorite stories come together on Midnights, as she keeps getting lost in her own lavender labyrinths. I love how she brags, “I play it cool with the best of them.” (Taylor, have you met yourself? The last time you sang about how emotionally chill you were, you sang the line “isn’t it?” 26 times in one song.) I love the 3 A.M. Quill Pen ballads—damn, “The Great War.” Even “Karma,” which sounded like the dud at first. (The title might evoke John Lennon or George Harrison, but it’s exactly the song Paul McCartney would have written about karma in 1974 for Side 2 of Wings’ Venus and Mars.) I love every minute of this thing. A total Taylor classic.
1. Beyoncé, Renaissance
A concept album about adult fun, from a queen who turns the whole cosmos into her dance floor. In her first since Lemonade, Beyoncé the “Freakum Dress” Party Girl Hedonist goes up against Beyoncé the Genius Conceptual Music Mind, and they both win, because they need each other. The opening 10-minute bang is as exhilarating as music got this year, kicking off an epic visionary tour of Black dance sounds, traveling through so much cultural history in every beat, uniting every alien superstar in the club. She keeps wondering if we’re having enough fun, if she’s working hard enough, if she’s being socially responsible enough, only to decide the hell with it, let’s hit the floor and fuck up the night. She’s Number One, the one of one, the only one, too classic for this world.