2022 was a strong year for the music industry, with great albums in pop, hip-hop, folk, and beyond. Momentous comebacks from well-known artists stood side by side with promising debuts from upcoming singers, and as an avid music listener, I spent my year listening to as many of these releases as possible. In no particular order, here are my top albums released this year:

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers by Kendrick Lamar
Pulitzer-Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album is yet another example of his masterful artistry, this time with newfound maturity and wisdom. Lamar’s flow is always intense, both in aggressive moments and subtly emotional ones. Production is innovative on songs like “United in Grief” and “Mr. Morale,” and even in less sonically inventive moments, Lamar and his producers perfectly execute hip-hop formulas. Many of Lamar’s previous works have focused on others’ stories and communal issues, but on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Lamar focuses on himself, describing how he has been personally impacted by the dark aspects of his culture.

He narrates experiences of pain—including domestic abuse, ‘daddy issues,’ and generational trauma—with the arresting, intricate penmanship and undeniable intensity that defines Lamar’s discography. Simultaneously, he experiences personal growth within this album, exemplified on the final track “Mirror” as he repeats the lyric “I choose me,” the final decision that he deserves.

 

Best tracks: “United in Grief,” “N95,” “Die Hard,” “Father Time,” “We Cry Together,” “Count Me Out,” “Savior,” “Auntie Diaries,” “Mr. Morale,” “Mother I Sober,” “Mirror”

Midnights by Taylor Swift
After two phenomenal folk-inspired albums, Taylor Swift returns to pure pop on Midnights, and she does not disappoint. Swift’s immense storytelling abilities and impeccable songwriting skills are on full display, as she vividly writes about insecurities, revenge, regrets, and romantic relationships; some toxic, some healthy. Swift and producer Jack Antonoff lean into their pop sensibilities to create some of the most fun tracks of the year, most notably “Karma.” Even while embracing mainstream pop, the album is rarely overly generic, and features occasional moments of subtle experimentation on contemplative highlights like “Midnight Rain” and “Labyrinth.” In addition to the thirteen song tracklist, Swift released seven bonus tracks on the deluxe Midnights (3am Edition), including the clever “The Great War,” the emotional highlight “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” and the mesmerizing conclusion “Dear Reader.” Midnights was the best-selling album of 2022, and deservedly so.

 

Best tracks: “Lavender Haze,” “Maroon,” “Midnight Rain,” “Labyrinth,” “Karma,” “Sweet Nothing,” “The Great War,” “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” “Dear Reader”

MOTOMAMI by ROSALÍA
Spanish singer ROSALÍA is one of the most forward-thinking mainstream pop artists today. Her eclectic third album is full of twists and turns—never repetitive but always cohesive. The project opens with its best track, “SAOKO,” an addictive, industrial reggaeton song with constant sonic switch-ups. The smooth R&B “CANDY” and The Weeknd collaboration “LA FAMA” follow, both featuring catchy hooks and calmer production. “HENTAI” is yet another highlight, juxtaposing a beautiful piano ballad with jarringly explicit lyrics. The production on MOTOMAMI is both minimalist and over-the-top, relying solely on percussion or dark synths at some points and bursting with genre-bending surprises at others. ROSALÍA’s unique, classically flamenco trained voice commands attention over any instrument, whether she’s rapping as a mean girl on “BIZCOCHITO” or emotionally belting on “G3 N15.” Furthermore, the thematic variety is just as diverse as the range of production styles, both of which create an engaging concept of duality by contrasting intense, aggressive sounds with emotional, muted balladry.

 

Best tracks: “SAOKO,” “CANDY,” “CHICKEN TERIYAKI,” “HENTAI,” “BIZCOCHITO,” “G3 N15,” “DELIRIO DE GRANDEZA”

RENAISSANCE by Beyoncé
Seven albums into her solo career, Beyoncé’s innovation and talent is the best it’s ever been. On RENAISSANCE, ‘Queen Bey’ takes on dance music, a first for her. She combines elements of disco, R&B, hip-hop, ballroom, and house, honoring and celebrating Black and queer culture as she turns the listener’s environment into a club dance floor. Black and queer producers are the most important part of this project, constructing consistently top-tier production that is both nostalgic and fresh. And, as the cherry on top, each song flows into the next with brilliant transitions that make the entire project feel like a DJ set—I get excited by the transition from “CUFF IT” to “ENERGY” even after hearing it hundreds of times. It seems unnecessary to even mention the phenomenal vocals, as this is BEYONCÉ we’re talking about, so of course her distinctive tone, perfect runs, tight harmonies, and untouchable confidence make the album stand out. With RENAISSANCE, Beyoncé has created something timely yet timeless.

 

Best tracks: “ALIEN SUPERSTAR,” “CUFF IT,” “ENERGY,” “CHURCH GIRL,” “VIRGO’S GROOVE,” “MOVE,” “HEATED,” “ALL UP IN YOUR MIND”

And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow by Weyes Blood
Weyes Blood’s take on baroque pop is cinematic and ethereal, drawing heavy inspiration from ‘70s artists like Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. Soft pianos and lush orchestration allow Blood’s warm vocals to take up space richly while remaining weightless and delicate. On the opening track, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” Blood sings about loneliness—at first on an individual level but then about the greater human experience—as subdued percussion and chamber harmonies grow into dazzling grandeur. Later, on “God Turn Me Into a Flower,” the album’s ethereal, hymn-like centerpiece, Blood employs a church organ, sparse synths, and nature sounds to create a melancholic atmosphere. The album’s gracefulness and beauty is consistent, with entrancing instrumental moments sprinkled between the more significant vocal-driven songs. With a vocal melody or without, Blood finds light in darkness, solace in shared loneliness, and originality in a nostalgic genre.

 

Best tracks: “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” “Grapevine,” “God Turn Me Into a Flower,” “Hearts Aglow”

The Forever Story by JID
Heavy bass, punchy hooks, and aggressive beats bring fiery energy to JID’s The Forever Story, one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. JID’s tight flow is skillful, fast, and playful. Behind his playfulness, though, JID’s lyricism is stronger than ever before, with clear narratives of romance, brotherhood, the streets, and confidence painted through storytelling and fun wordplay. With a great list of features (Kenny Mason, 21 Savage, Ari Lennox, and more), catchy refrains, and charismatic flow, hip-hop is done right on this album.

 

 

Best tracks: “Dance Now,” “Crack Sandwich,” “Kody Blu 31,” “Can’t Make U Change,” “Money,” “Better Days”

Are You Happy Now? by Jensen McRae
Jensen McRae’s debut album feels simple, but has an underlying sense of complexity rarely seen on an artist’s first LP. McRae has a devastating belt, a beautiful falsetto, and a stunning lower register, allowing her to convey intense emotion through her vocals. A variety of influences are recognizable on this project, including Phoebe Bridgers-esque metaphors on “Adam’s Ribs,” Sara Bareilles pep on “Good Legs,” pinpoint lyricism reminiscent of Lucy Dacus on “Machines,” and SZA-style angst on “White Boy.” Her melodies are memorable, but never in-your-face or forcefully catchy, and the acoustic-based production is intriguing. McRae’s most impressive skill, though, is her writing. Her storytelling is well-crafted, relatable, and authentic. The attention to detail and sheer talent from McRae is evident throughout this entire project.

 

Best tracks: “Adam’s Ribs,” “Good Legs,” “Wolves,” “Machines,” “White Boy,” “Dead Girl Walking”

Ivory by Omar Apollo
Omar Apollo blew up this year after his song “Evergreen” went viral on TikTok. His album Ivory proves that he has much more to offer than a single social media moment. Apollo demonstrates his versatility throughout his debut LP, ranging from euphoric indie-pop/rock on “Talk” to the pure R&B “Invincible” with Daniel Caesar, mixing synthpop on “Go Away” with campfire guitar on “Petrified,” singing the traditional flamenco “En El Olvido” right before the erotic pop-rap “Tamagotchi,” and combining the Frank Ocean-reminiscent “Evergreen” with the soft Prince-inspired conclusion “Mr. Neighbor.” Despite the sonic variety, though, the record is tied together through cohesive production styles and overarching themes of intimacy, love, and passion.

 

Best tracks: “Talk,” “Invincible,” “Petrified,” “En El Olvido,” “Tamagotchi, “Evergreen,” “Bad Life,” “Mr. Neighbor,” “Pretty Boy”

Preacher’s Daughter by Ethel Cain
Ethel Cain’s unnerving debut album uniquely fuses elements of dream pop, Americana, slowcore, and gothic rock, creating a dark, frisson-inducing atmosphere. Even more chilling than the production, however, is the concept album’s full-fledged narrative, which begins with Southern small-town life, the American dream, religion, and young love, and ends with abuse, intergenerational trauma, murder, and cannibalism. Heavy reverb allows Cain’s vocals to soar on tracks like “American Teenager” that exuberate hope in spite of darkness, and vocal filters add to the album’s disturbing nature, most present in “Ptolemaea,” a frighteningly discordant moment in the album’s narrative. This project contains some of the most haunting music of the year, but never surrenders musical beauty.

 

Best tracks: “American Teenager,” “Hard Times,” “Thoroughfare,” “Gibson Girl,” “Ptolemaea,” “Sun Bleached Flies”

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You by Big Thief
Despite its extensive 80 minute runtime, Big Thief’s newest album always feels like it ends too soon. This project holds onto a sense of escapism, even while it is grounded in reality, seeming to freeze time during its duration. Diverse instrumentation is skillfully and crisply executed by the band members, conveying warmth through acoustic instruments and peaceful soundscapes. Lyrically, stories are told with profound detail and imagery, assisted by comparisons to nature and purposeful repetition. If you listen to just one song from this album, make it “Simulation Swarm,” an immediately memorable indie-folk track that shows off lead singer Adriane Lenker’s vivid writing style on top of satisfyingly peaceful instrumentation, as she recounts trauma and longs to find peace. With a mix of tranquil folk songs and rock-infused tracks, this project remains overwhelmingly serene throughout its entirety.

 

Best tracks: “Change,” “Time Escaping,” “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You,” “Sparrow,” “Blurred View,” “Wake Me Up To Drive,” “Promise Is a Pendulum,” “Simulation Swarm”

SOS by SZA
SZA’s long-awaited sophomore album opens with “SOS,” a punchy and compelling introduction that sets the stage for the wide variety of tracks that follow, including sugary-sweet pop songs, a pop-punk banger, and vulnerable ballads. As always, SZA’s lyricism is striking due to its sincerity and relatability, best exhibited on “Special,” in which SZA regrets changing herself in an attempt to become ‘normal’ and losing her uniqueness in the process. Strong guest artists add to the album’s excitement, including an unexpected but successful collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and a Travis Scott feature that once again proves how well they work together. Although it’s no Ctrl, SZA’s talent is evident throughout SOS, a collection of 23 worthwhile tracks.

 

Best tracks: “SOS,” “Kill Bill,” “Used,” “Low,” “Gone Girl,” “Ghost in the Machine,” “F2F,” “Special, “Open Arms,” “Good Days”

Ben Siegel is a sophomore at M-A and in his first year in journalism. He loves pop culture, specifically music, as well as issues and events in our local community. Outside of school, he spends time doing theatre and being with friends.

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