2022 spoiled us with a plethora of amazing music. With widespread themes of quarantine-induced introspection and back-outside dance revelry, the year in music saw major artists return from long hiatuses and newer artists burst onto the scene with legendary projects. To craft this list, we considered the quality of work, critic and fan reception, replay value, cultural significance, and overall listening enjoyment. Without further ado, here’s our unranked list of the 22 best albums of the year.
Bad Bunny – Un Verano Sin Ti
Where better to start than with the most-streamed album from the most-streamed artist in the world? The fourth solo studio album from Puerto Rican rapper and singer Bad Bunny is a cohesive voyage through the various sounds of the Caribbean region – reggaetón, reggae, bachata, bomba, Dominican dembow, and Dominican mambo, among others. The enticing patchwork lures listeners into a universe of experimental arrangements, sharp yet nostalgic synths, and unexpected genre fusions. This loving ode to Caribbean culture bridges the high-energy party and fun sonidos of the A-side to the tranquility and consciousness of the B-side to craft a diasporic summer playlist.
A new Beyoncé album is a cultural event quite unlike any other. The Queen’s seventh solo studio album Renaissance delivered an unfettered joy listeners’ desperately craved in a post-pandemic society through its rich celebration of club music, self-expression, and sexual agency. Boasting a vast number of samples and collaborations, the record is still carefully curated with every sound, lyric, and transition perfected. Moreover, Beyoncé flexes her uncanny ability to pinpoint the cultural zeitgeist, reinvent it, and level up.
Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
This sprawling double LP is Big Thief’s most ambitious project yet, masterfully mixing folk, country, and rock inclinations. The sonics of this album are as cheerfully overstuffed as its title, rife with kaleidoscopic invention and striking beauty with little concern for outward cohesion. Beneath seemingly derelict surfaces lie meticulous constructs, undeniable grooves, and earworm melodies. Adrianne Lanker’s emotive voice blending with Buck Meek’s guitar perfectly harnesses the band’s superhuman chemistry. Lanker’s sharply intimate pen unifies the prolific band’s myriad of musical impulses.
The second album from London band Black Country, New Road is a slow burn with a triumphant finale. Ants From Up There is a beautifully crafted, romantic, and incredibly sad album that serves as lead vocalist and guitarist Isaac Wood’s goodbye from the band. “I was made to love you, can’t you tell?” he pleads as “Concorde” reaches a dizzying altitude. The Concorde jet is a recurring lyrical metaphor as an aeronautical disgrace, financial fraud, and multinational embarrassment. Throughout the album, lyrics manifest every grain of hope as a heaven-sent beacon and every letdown as a freefall into the void. Each track fits with the others so perfectly with not a moment wasted, creating an astounding body of work with a devastating yet cleansing emotional impact. Black Country, New Road reminds us why we let ourselves get swept up in these beautifully doomed fantasies to begin with. Hope can be a powerful thing, and sometimes the ride is just too fucking great. If this was a ranked list, Ants From Up There would sit alone at the top as the album of the year.
Denzel Curry takes us on the deepest dive into his own psyche with Melt My Eyez, See Your Future. The result is the most transparent version of himself as he analyzes the sporadic thoughts consuming his mind. Denzel’s stream-of-consciousness delivery is particularly engaging as he works to accept his shortcomings and kill his ego, effectively melting his eyes in order to move toward the future. Though his tears blur his vision, Denzel is comfortable turning them into mirrors to reflect on the distance he’s traveled. Additionally, the deluxe edition saw Denzel join the Cold Blooded Soul band for several jazzy remixes that are as good if not better than the originals.
SICK! finds Earl Sweatshirt in peak form delivering dense lyricism over largely non-conformist production. As one of the most skilled MCs of his generation, Earl’s pen has always been his biggest gift. On SICK!, his thought process matures with more talk of acceptance, balance, and moving forward. His writing is more concise than ever, with his sharp wit and varied delivery painting strikingly vivid images. Earl explores the uproar and confusion brought on by the pandemic, as well as the implications of new fatherhood and questions of mortality. The responsibility he feels for his son drives his responses to the strange and perilous present as he nurtures new life while surrounded by death. While SICK! doesn’t recontextualize the genre in the same way as Some Rap Songs, it’s an act of self-revolution as a newly assured Earl Sweatshirt is free to ascend.
Though technically billed as a mixtape, Caprisongs sees the butterfly that is FKA Twigs fully spread her wings. The renowned perfectionist lets loose as her glitchy R&B and avant-pop styles gleefully extend into the realms of Afrobeats (“jealousy”), hyper-pop (“pamplemousse”), and grime. There are tender introspections, playful vocal performances, and fiery beats that capture Twigs’ process of building herself back up after heartbreak. The seventeen-track effort sees Twigs learn to create her own destiny as the main attraction in both her music and personal life.
Throughout his career, JID has always been a capital-L Lyricist with a Gatling gun flow. With The Forever Story, the Atlanta rapper’s ambition is on full display as he reflects on his upbringing and considers his place within hip-hop canon. JID contemplates love and loss as his burning passion for family and fighting for what he believes in energizes the project. His voice is elastic, half-stepping at different BPMs and creating exciting vocal pockets in the shuffling beats. Along with the bars, heartrending tracks like “Kody Blu 31” show JID’s been honing his singing skills as well. The juxtaposition of gratitude and hunger drive the tension in The Forever Story as JID shows just how daring and vulnerable he’s willing to be. Additionally, an all-star cast of features includes Dreamville colleagues Earthgang and Ari Lennox, as well as hip-hop MVPs 21 Savage, Lil Durk, and Yasiin Bey – all of whom are on point. If it wasn’t already clear, JID’s The Forever Story is a maximalist offering that could very well be the best hip-hop album of 2022.
In the five years since his Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN., fans wondered what direction Kendrick’s new project would go. The inward-looking Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers sees a brutally honest Kendrick confront lust addiction (“Worldwide Steppers”), daddy issues and toxic masculinity (“Father Time”), transphobia (“Auntie Diaries”), and sexual abuse (“Mother I Sober”). For those who use music as an escape or mere entertainment, an album this dense in lyrical content, self-reflection, and meditation can be difficult to consume. The confessionals can be overbearing as Kendrick’s theatrical performance looks to break the cycle for a generation of people. Mr. Morale is more dynamic and thought-provoking than nearly everything else in hip-hop, and rightfully so. After several monumental albums that have pushed the genre forward, Kendrick takes a moment to explore a future filled with family, therapy, and a better sense of self. It’s clear Kendrick made this album for himself, and we’re thankful he shared his introspection with the world.
Since 2016, Kenny Beats has established himself as a go-to producer for acts such as Denzel Curry, Vince Staples, Rico Nasty, and others. His creative style, uncanny ability to connect with artists [as seen on The Cave], and musical prowess have earned him labels as Gen Z’s Rick Rubin meets Madlib on Twitch. On Louie, Kenny Beats pays tribute to the person who introduced him to the world of music from a young age – his dad. The result is a dynamic solo debut bursting with soul samples, radio-DJ-style transitions, and recordings of his father. Though Louie is mostly instrumentals, Kenny incorporates guests including JPEGMAFIA (“Still”), slowthai (“Family Tree”), and Omar Apollo (“Still”) in unique and deceptive ways. The tracks don’t climax as much as they playfully blend into new variations in this joyous, funky, and texturally dynamic project.
NO THANK YOU is exactly why we wait until the very end of the year to publish an album of the year list. Released only a few weeks ago, UK star Little Simz blasts a music industry that has left her feeling drained and cheated. After playing by the rules and doing everything she was supposed to for over a decade, the now-independent artist is fed up – and it shows throughout this ten-track effort. She stashed the fanfare and goes back to rap basics, eviscerating the industry with each verse. “They don’t care if your mental is on the brink of something dark / As long as you’re cutting somebody’s payslip / And sending their kids to private school in a spaceship,” she raps on the opening track “Angel” before demanding “Give me all my masters and lower your wages.” Production from Inflo serves as the perfect backdrop, with plucked-bass bop and gospel swells. Little Simz isn’t just a Mercury-prize-winning artist – she’s the sitting Queen of Rap.
There are albums, and then there are movies. From the fiery preview video to the stacked cast of features to the grandiose cinematic production, Heroes & Villains is a blockbuster event. The ambitious, detail-rich project from Metro Boomin is an opus of psychedelic trap and star-clad hits that sees the producer deliver his standard quota of bangers while also taking fun risks. Combining smooth The Weeknd melodies with sharp 21 Savage bars shouldn’t be as easy as Metro makes it out to be. Don Toliver delivers magnetic vocal performances, Future’s wide awake for war, and Young Thug steals the show on “Metro Spider”. The creativity reaches an apex on “Walk Em Down (Don’t Kill Civilians)” when a visceral 21 Savage horrorcore record transforms into a piano-backed meditation on grief led by Mustafa. On Heroes & Villains, Metro Boomin continues his reign as the best producer in hip-hop right now.
Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia Lafourcade delivered this bountiful masterwork, a baroque collection of songs largely inspired by months spent in her garden during the pandemic. Lush arrangements soundtrack her exploration of the intensity of life, death, and rebirth. In the aptly titled “Muerte,” Lafourcade’s vocals take on an uncanny tenor as she thanks death for teaching her how to live. Meanwhile, “María La Curandera” encourages the listener to find healing in nature, drawing inspiration from the writings of Mazatec healer María Sabina. The album blooms with bossa nova melodies, complex décima structures, and rich natural sounds. It’s a truly dazzling work that draws you into her sublime reflections and the awe-inspiring strength of the Earth.
Omar Apollo moves with stunning fluidity between moods and genres on his expansive project Ivory. From the sleek R&B glimmer of “Go Away” to the bedroom-pop of “Waiting On You” to the traditional Mexican balladry of “En El Olvido,” Apollo establishes himself as a sonic chameleon. At the heart of it all is Omar’s backstory as a queer person from Indiana who loves hard and thinks deeply, and now finds himself at the forefront of crafting the pop music of the future that’s accessible enough for TikTok virality yet sonically profound enough to gain critical acclaim.
In Pusha’s post-Clipse career, the winning formula has been simple: dope talk over dope beats. It’s Almost Dry may be the Virginia rapper’s finest offering yet. His critiques of mob mentality and fake ballers are wittier, sneakier, and more intoxicating than back in the day. With incomparable production split equally between Pharrell and Kanye, Pusha’s vicious bars shine as the sharpest collection of rhymes you’ll hear this year. After two decades as the standard-bearer of coke rap, his business acumen hasn’t faded and he’s still not jaded. Further, Pusha trading bars with Jay-Z on “Neck & Wrist” could easily be the best rap song of 2022.
After a four-year hiatus since her Crush EP, Chicago’s Ravyn Lenae returned with Hypnos. Named after the god of dreams, Lenae’s debut studio album grooves through time and the cosmos to indulge desires of self-discovery. Her fearless candor takes center stage as lush, psychedelic soundscapes and hypnotic harmonies consume your ears. Aided by other galactic adventurers innovating R&B like Steve Lacy, Smino, and Fousheé, Ravyn Lenae retains a precise focus with a confident vulnerability on her journey to self-love.
On her third studio album MOTOMAMI, Rosalía proves that experimentalism and traditionalism can coexist with the most riveting sensation. At times, the project is explosive and distorted, later contrasted with the deeply personal and poetic. It’s a stellar and chaotic blend of flamenco, reggaetón, alt-pop, glitchy R&B, and even despondent gospel (“Genís”). With an unflinching approach, Rosalía continues to push the limits of modern Latin pop while bringing excitement and seduction to the forefront. Led by her masterful understanding of the pioneers whose work she builds on, Rosalía is carving a lane all to herself in pop music.
Glory to Dean Josiah Cover, aka Inflo, the producer of the year. The mysterious leader of Sault and the first Black man to win producer of the year at the BRIT awards exclusively released a massive collection of five albums on November 1st that know no boundaries. Of those releases, 11 feels like a direct sequel to previous releases 5, 7, and Nine. Pulling from Afrobeats, jazz, and blues, 11 combines sparse arrangements with booming, soul-filled grooves and striking, understated vocals. I’ve always said one non-negotiable element of classic albums is having no skips, and 11 fits the bill. Truthfully, any one of Sault’s seven releases of the year could be mentioned in this list, each as sonically diverse as they are ambitious in their breadth and scale. Today & Tomorrow, Untitled (God), and Earth are also very much worth checking out.
Singer, songwriter, producer, violinist, and charismatic icon are just a few ways to describe Brittney Parks, aka Sudan Archives. If it wasn’t clear already, her second LP Natural Brown Prom Queen confirms the possibilities are endless. Parks flawlessly executes leaps from steamy R&B to fleet-voiced rap to electronic reveries with a frenzied energy as emotionally soothing as it is physically crushing. The result is a self-portrait of a woman who loves her body, treasures her imagination, and demands celebration for her powerful soul. “Gorgeous and arrogant, I love the smell of it,” she declares on “Homesick,” one of the many songs that exemplify her daring lyricism and technical ingenuity. Tracks like “Home Maker,” “Ciara,” and “ChevyS10” have been on repeat in the months since the release.
Named for the area of Long Beach, California where he grew up, RPBMH is Vince Staples’ most personal body of work to date. Though he’s been exploring the sociology of his upbringing since his 2015 debut, this album displays his impressive growth as a songwriter. Consider “When Sparks Fly,” an endearing track that could take multiple listens to realize Vince is talking about a firearm and not a romantic partner. Rather than romanticize street culture, Vince laments his stolen youth with a deadpan elegy throughout the project. However, Staples does find a moment to capture the essence of West Coast hip-hop with “Lemonade” featuring Ty Dolla-$ign. At its core, RPBMH is honest and real, pulling no punches in its contemplation of Los Angeles and life on the street as a whole. While some have labeled Vince a nihilist devoid of hope, his hard-earned cynicism stems from seeing too much to believe empty platitudes.
Abel Tesfaye’s radio station in purgatory known as Dawn FM is an enchanting, grandiose journey to the afterlife. Production from Max Martin and Oneohtrix Point Never creates an electropop revival with a sleek, modern punch as The Weeknd’s anthemic, earworm choruses glimmer. The project effectively captures a fleeting sense of euphoria and the duality of circumstance as upbeat synths mesh with darker lyrical themes. With Jim Carrey serving as our blissed-out resident DJ, we’re reminded that in order to reach a divine light, we must have a divine soul. Overall, Dawn FM is one of the best pop albums of 2022, and leaves us drooling for the third project in Abel’s latest trilogy.
Last but certainly not least is the duo of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers from the Isle of Wight. Garnering well-deserved praise for catchy, joyfully caustic tunes such as “Wet Dream” and “Chaise Lounge,” Wet Leg delivered a phenomenal self-titled debut. The project is littered with sharp tunes and even sharper quips throughout this assortment of deadpan pop songs. Post-punk riffs meet doo-wop harmonies, with a plethora of lyrical screw-you’s to exes, enemies, and internalized doubts. Wet Leg will certainly be a band to check out for years to come.