Does the album matter in the age of the playlist? Does it matter in the age of TikTok? In a world where a 20-second snippet is enough to make a statement—or even a career—what do we make of 50-minute monoliths? At a time when everyone seems content to skim in between their doomscrolling, are these works still worth the average listener’s undivided attention?
Well, spoiler alert: At The Ringer, we still believe in the long player. (In some cases, we believe in the very long player.) What follows is a list of our 33 favorite records of the year. It includes new entries into the rap and indie rock pantheons, plus a few stadium-filling blockbusters and bedroom-pop masterpieces. Some of these releases we danced to. Some we cried to. (In a few cases, we did both simultaneously.) Ultimately, this ranking marks our best attempt to highlight the albums that not only defined our listening consumption in 2022, but also defined the first year with the music industry operating at full strength since 2019. [Editor’s note: Several of these blurbs were previously published in our midyear rankings.]
Check back on Thursday to see our favorite songs of the year, and visit The Ringer throughout the month for the rest of our year-end coverage.
33. Ramona Park Broke My Heart, Vince Staples
Ramona Park Broke My Heart is a reckoning with nostalgia. Throughout his fifth studio album, Staples balances the love for his hometown with the pain he endured to make it out. Surviving the perils of gang life in Long Beach is a feat, but confronting the lasting wounds of the journey is what makes this album stand out. It’s a layered project that gives the forgotten homies of yesteryear their humanity and reveals Staples’s complicated relationship with love. His “Player Ways” won’t let him love his partner as much as he loves his pistol, which offers more protection on his ascent.
The album coincides with the recent cultural mainstream validation of Staples. In recent months, he’s been on television promoting cars, and he’s gearing up for a revamp of the iconic film White Men Can’t Jump, in which he has a starring role. Somehow he still seems like the same grounded rapper who would run around Mac Miller’s studio way back when, hoping to get a verse off. And he has Ramona Park to thank for that. —Logan Murdock
32. PAINLESS, Nilüfer Yanya
“Why do other people have this idea that artists need to be suffering in order for their music to be good?” the rising 27-year-old British singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya told NPR in March. The question pervades PAINLESS, her stellar second album, built on big drums, big riffs, and bigger emotions. Over lush tracks that occasionally recall The Bends or OK Computer, Yanya sings like she’s sharing a late-night confessional, alternating between whispery cries and bellowing declarations. PAINLESS’s songs can be intimate (“Try,” “Midnight Sun”) or pulverizing (“The Dealer,” “Stabilise”), but they always feel like they’re working toward catharsis. At times, she finds it: Take the album’s best song, “Shameless,” which boasts a sentimental melody that belies the lyrics’ aching heartbreak. “If it feels good / Then it’s all right,” she sings, and for a second, you’re inclined to believe her. —Justin Sayles
31. Component System With the Auto Reverse, Open Mike Eagle
It’s no great revelation to say that Open Mike Eagle’s best work splits the difference between humor and horror. After all, he once named an album Dark Comedy and has a song with the chorus “The Black Mirror episode ruined my marriage.” But on his latest LP, the excellent Component System With the Auto Reverse, the L.A.-via-Chicago MC pulls back from the edge just a bit. A tribute to the four-decker stereos that littered bedrooms in the ’90s and early aughts, Component System at times feels like a true homage to its namesake, as Mike has crafted his version of a modern-day mixtape. Two of its best songs—“Burner Account” and the stunning tribute to the metal-faced villain “For DOOM”—were released as loosies in 2021, while the most notable feature is golden-age legend Diamond D, who produces three tracks and raps one. He also brings a lot of his friends along for the ride: Aesop Rock, billy woods and Elucid, Video Dave, Quelle Chris, R.A.P. Ferreira, among others. The result is something more immediate and looser than much of Mike’s recent output. (Particularly 2020’s Anime, Trauma + Divorce, a record that mined both personal and professional setbacks along with the looping cycles of suffering.) Even when Mike gets serious, like on the clear-eyed career self-assessment “I Retired Then I Changed My Mind” and the ethereal “Peak Lockdown Raps,” it comes across in a free-associative stream of consciousness—long blocks of lyrics dotted with witticisms and one-liners. It can be hard to tell where Mike’s punch lines end and his confessionals begin. But perhaps better than any working rapper, he understands that even if a damn thing ain’t funny, it’s still worth cracking a smile. —Sayles
30. Spaceships on the Blade, Larry June
For much of his career, Larry June has been a curator of vibe, providing a soundtrack to long drives, spliff hits, and Target runs, all while lacing game that could grow out of the Bay Area soil.
August’s Spaceships on the Blade continues the trend with help from 2 Chainz, Syd, Duckworth, Babyface Ray, and Curren$y, who round out June’s strongest project to date. Songs like “I’m Him” and “I’ll Make Time” ride like a 2011 Ferrari California along the coast of Pacifica, and production from DJ Fresh, Alchemist, and Turbo soundtrack June’s years-long ascent from an independent artist streaming tapes on DistroKid to one of the faces of Empire distribution. All of which gives the appearance that June could take the leap toward mainstream appeal if he desires next year. —Murdock
29. High School, Tim Heidecker
Yes, that Tim Heidecker. The alt-comedy legend returned this summer with a new album, the latest in his continued lean into earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve singer-songwriter rock. It’s his best yet: On High School Heidecker mines the past to make sense of the present. Songs like “Chillin’ in Alaska” and “Stupid Kid” tap into adolescent heartbreak, while “Buddy” paints a composite sketch of old friends lost to drugs and other circumstances. At points, like on the standout single “Sirens of Titan,” it plays as though Heidecker is recalling buried memories in real time, piecing them together to complete the puzzle of who he is today. With Mac DeMarco helping with the production and Kurt Vile dropping by for an assist, it’s not just Heidecker’s best record—it’s one of the best indie rock records you’ll hear all year. —Sayles
28. Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky, Porridge Radio
The pandemic robbed Porridge Radio of their breakout moment. At least that’s been the narrative around the Brighton, U.K., quartet, who released one of 2020’s buzziest albums just as the world was shutting down. But to the extent the band buys into that story, they don’t appear any worse for wear. Porridge Radio’s latest album builds on the strengths of its predecessor, Every Bad, while pushing their music in an exciting new direction. The instrumentals are bigger, swelling with synths and organs and reaching for the rafters. They’re ethereal, cathartic, and even a bit spiritual, providing a perfect backdrop for lead singer and chief songwriter Dana Margolin, one of the most exciting and emotive new voices in music. With titanic songs like the heart-wrecked sing-along of lead single “Back to the Radio” or new-wave groover “The Rip,” Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky hits you like a megaton bomb of feelings. And maybe that’s enough to change the narrative around Porridge Radio. —Sayles
27. The Loneliest Time, Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen remains the most reliable pop music machine. On her fifth album, she expands her sound with folksy Rostam Batmanglij–produced tracks like lead single “Western Wind” and the poignant “Go Find Yourself or Whatever.” She goes for dark, cynical comedy as she recounts dating app horror stories on “Beach House,” but the wide-eyed hopeless romantic that we’ve come to know through Jepsen’s love-affirming anthems is not lost—she’s just a little wiser. “I paid to toughen up in therapy / She said to me, ‘Soften up,’” she admits on opener “Surrender My Heart,” a punchy knockout about wanting to let her guard down for a partner. She croons with Rufus Wainwright on the standout title track, an instant classic pop duet in the vein of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Islands in the Stream,” to revisit an old flame with a little more life experience. The heart of Jepsen’s music still comes from the joy of love, but she now knows that the avenues of finding it range far and wide, and that heartbreak, introspection, regrets, and lonely times are all part of the ride. —Julianna Ress
26. A Light for Attracting Attention, the Smile
The Smile’s debut album is not a new Radiohead album. But it’s also not not a new Radiohead album, at least in terms of energy. A Light for Attracting Attention finds Thom Yorke teaming up with guitarist-composer and his main RH songwriting partner Jonny Greenwood, plus longtime producer Nigel Godrich. (Drummer Tom Skinner, whose work includes collaborations with Floating Points, is also in tow.) The result is something that sounds not entirely dissimilar from the main group’s more recent work while also gently nudging Yorke and Co. in new directions. “The Smoke” and “The Opposite” show that the Smile can groove harder than what you’ve come to expect of Radiohead-related projects (which is saying something, considering the dearth of 4/4 time signatures on A Light). “A Hairdryer,” which layers a hypnotizing riff over a flickering double-time beat, splits the difference between The Bends and Yorke’s electronic sojourns like The Eraser. “You Will Never Work in Television Again” recalls the Hail to the Thief era, just updated for a new age. Marking the distinctions between a Smile song and a Radiohead one can sometimes fall into the “narcissism of small differences” camp. (A song like “Free in the Knowledge” plays like a classic Radiohead ballad, for instance.) But there’s a freedom that comes with some of these songs that Yorke and Greenwood may not have been able to achieve within the confines of their most famous group. And perhaps that’s why A Light for Attracting Attention exists as its own stand-alone concern. —Sayles
25. Laurel Hell, Mitski
“I need you to love me more / Love me more / Love me more,” demands one of the most adored and breathlessly scrutinized art-rock stars of her generation on a synth-pop stunner midway through her sixth album, which agonizes over what all that adoration and scrutiny has cost her. “Love enough to drown it out / Drown it out / Drown me out.” Laurel Hell pulls you closer and pushes you away with effortless magnetism and merciless honesty: “Open up your heart like the gates of hell” sums it up. These are uneasy but razor-sharp pop songs about the tyranny of love (“If you would just make one mistake / What a relief that would be”), the tyranny of growing up (“Maybe at 30, I’ll see a way to change”), the tyranny, perhaps, of pop stardom. (She’s huge on TikTok, but Twitter arguments about her are insufferable.) Regardless of who she’s addressing with lines like “I haven’t given you what you need / You wanted me but couldn’t reach me,” this is a dense and mesmerizing excoriation of hero worship destined, of course, to only inspire more. —Rob Harvilla
24. Diaspora Problems, Soul Glo
With their Epitaph debut, Philadelphia anarcho-punks Soul Glo have crafted the year’s loudest, brashest album—you can deadlift to Diaspora Problems or you can start a revolution to it. Songs don’t get much more cathartic than opener “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?),” which hits like centuries of rage channeled into a 20-pound wrecking ball, or “Coming Correct Is Cheaper,” which builds a hardcore cacophony atop the Lyn Collins break that Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock flipped for “It Takes Two.” Elsewhere, Soul Glo plays with industrial-tinged trap music (“Driponomics”) and blissed-out funk-metal (“Spiritual Level of Gang Shit”). Diaspora Problems is perhaps 2022’s most overtly political major release—both lyrically and in terms of the flag the now-trio is planting in their white-dominated genre. (Lead vocalist Pierce Jordan and bassist GG Guerra are both Black.) You’ll either sprain your neck headbanging to Diaspora Problems or throw out your arm chucking bricks through Starbucks windows. —Sayles
23. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, Big Thief
At 20 songs, 80 minutes, and roughly 50 abrupt but exhilarating vibe shifts, nothing about the mammoth fifth album from this burgeoning Brooklyn festival-rock institution is restrained, from the loopy title on down. Track 2 (“Time Escaping”) is an amiable prog-funk ode to entropy; Track 3 (“Spud Infinity”) is a buoyant, barefoot folk tribute to, uh, potatoes. (And infinity.) Take your time, choose your own adventure, and build your own Album of the Year track list: Mine would include the slow-motion droning ecstasy of “Sparrow,” the delicate flute solo that winds through the soft-rock majesty of “No Reason,” and the dreamy drum-machine chant of “Wake Me Up to Drive.” Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You takes no time at all to warm up to, but rewards every ounce of further energy you put into it, especially when it comes to wrapping your head around singer Adrianne Lenker’s vivid and surreal lyrics (“From the 31st floor of the simulation swarm / With the drone of fluorescence / Flicker, fever, fill the form”) or, better yet, never fully wrapping your head around them at all. —Harvilla
22. King’s Disease III, Nas
About a third of the way through King’s Disease III, Nas’s 16th and latest album, he teases one of the most mythicized projects in hip-hop history. “Premier album still might happen,” he raps on “30,” alluding to the long-rumored, never-materialized full-length he and DJ Premier first floated back in a 2006 interview. Lines like that are catnip for the rap purist—a fever dream for people who’ve spent decades poring over Nas and Preemo’s previous collabs, studying the sample chops on “Nas Is Like” or the storytelling acumen of “N.Y. State of Mind.” They, however, obscure the fact that God’s Son is already working with a legendary producer who’s getting great results out of him: Hit-Boy, his copilot for KDIII and his three previous albums.
On their latest team-up, the beatmaker and rapper are at the best either have sounded in years. Nas is loose and open throughout, confident enough to forsake a complex rhyme scheme to tell a good story, and honest enough to delve into the things his fans have long wanted to hear him speak on. (See: Nas admitting he still dissects bars from the “Takeover”; a winking acknowledgement that his ear for beats hasn’t always been the best; a glimpse of his rift with another legendary sample-flipper, Pete Rock.) Later, on “Once a Man, Twice a Child,” he approaches aging with a content enthusiasm. (And seemingly more empathy for others than he did on the Stillmatic classic “2nd Childhood.”) It’s perfect grown-person rap—backward-looking but not overly nostalgic, unquestionably deft but not trying to re-live past glories. For his part, Hit-Boy has found the right sonic palette for Nas to paint with: “Thun” recalls countless late-’90s Queensbridge classics, while tracks like “Michael & Quincy” are boom-bap for the old-head soul. While the first King’s Disease earned Nas his first Grammy, the latest installment in the series is by far the most refined. We’ll of course take the Premier album, as Nas is right to want to hunker down with one beatsmith. It’s just that he may have already found the perfect person to help him with his late-career excursions. —Sayles
21. age/sex/location, Ari Lennox
In an era overflowing with lamentations on internet romance, age/sex/location stands out as the most deservedly self-confident. This is not an album about copious fuckbois, unrequited intimacy, or unmet carnal needs. It’s an album that exists in spite of all three of these things—and more. Ari Lennox, young, Black, just over 30 can spot the trap. All she needs is an escape route.
Musically, Dreamville’s first lady wields a characteristically salty register over a range of sonic influences stretching from straight uncut soul to Emancipation of Mimi–ish R&B to sultry trap. She’s a tough cookie over strings on “Pressure” and willing, for a moment at least, to play with her food on a tangy duet with Lucky Daye called “Boy Bye.” More than once, she’s referred to the album as a documentation of her very own “eat pray love journey,” a quest for self-love. On replay, she’s further along than she gives herself credit for. —Lex Pryor
20. Honestly, Nevermind, Drake
From Justin Sayles’s review in June: Your mileage will vary depending on your predisposition to Drake as a singer. Honestly doesn’t go to great lengths to hide his flaws, as he routinely pushes the limits of his falsetto (and in turn, the limits of his Auto-Tune). And at points—like on the meandering outro to “Falling Back” and the otherwise gorgeous “Texts Go Green”—he sings slightly behind the beat. (Whether that’s a stylistic choice or the result of a rushed production process is unclear.) But just as often, these songs find Drake hitting the pockets he’s most comfortable in. The sun-soaked “Flight’s Booked” sounds like a true successor to “Passionfruit,” while “A Keeper” is sultry enough to cover for its radioactively toxic chorus. (“I found a new muse / That’s bad news for you.” Aubrey, please.) Even the back half of “Calling My Name”—built around a line no 36-year-old man should ever belt out—is forgivable because of how much fun he’s having. Sure, some of these songs may have been better served in the hands of a more accomplished singer. (Or, as mid-album highlight “Sticky” suggests, some would be better served by his rapping.) But this is Drake at his loosest—and frequently his most charming. After the cold calculus of Scorpion and Certified Loverboy, it’s a welcome development.
19. Once Twice Melody, Beach House
Eighteen years after they formed—a time when most bands would be slowing down or shifting into the comfortable “nostalgia” space—Beach House has released their most ambitious project yet. The sprawling Once Twice Melody is their biggest and boldest statement, more ethereal and gauzier than anything that’s come before it. An 84-minute double album, Melody is an immersive experience, one that washes over you with a mix of swirling synths, floating vocals, and shoegaze riffs. Songs like the sun-kissed title track and the sparkling “New Romance” feel like the culmination of everything the Baltimore dream-pop duo has been building toward since their 2006 debut. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this marks the first time Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have fully produced their own record. Melody is mesmerizing, and it raises exciting possibilities of how Beach House’s sound could evolve in the next decade-plus. —Sayles
18. $oul $old $eparately, Freddie Gibbs
When I close my eyes and press play on $ouls $old $eperately—Freddie Gibbs’s fifth studio solo album and first on a major label—I’m transported into a world that seems to be the bastard child of Vegas. The kind of place that has a hotel in which Joe Rogan, Kelly Price, and (somehow) Kevin Durant find themselves together waiting on Freddie. The presence of the guests, who make cameos on various tracks throughout the LP, are the latest example of Gibbs cementing his reign as the best pure rapper in the mainstream.
Since releasing the Grammy-nominated Alfredo in 2020, Gibbs has garnered a reputation that makes him one of the most interesting men in the genre. On $$$, he flexes that status in the Triple S Hotel, where Pusha T, Moneybagg Yo, Rick Ross, DJ Paul, and Raekwon are among the attractions eager to drop off bars. Longtime collaborators like the Alchemist and Madlib show, but so do J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, DJ Paul, and Kaytranda, all of whom help shift the vibe away from the dark jazzy sound of his recent records. It’s a blessing for Gibbs, who shows a unique versatility over the vast array of sounds. —Murdock
17. Being Funny in a Foreign Language, The 1975
“I think I’ve got a boner but I can’t really tell,” announces sublime dirtbag frontman Matty Healy 30 seconds into the 1975’s fifth album of exquisite and relentlessly clever arena-pop maximalism, and as intended, you roll your eyes so far back into your head you can see God. You can hear God too, though, in the breathless, synth-driven ecstasy of “Looking for Somebody (to Love).” And in the deadpan strings-and-groaners provocations of “Part of the Band.” (Shout-out to all you vaccinista tote-bag chic baristas.) Or in the gorgeous and propulsive piano banger “Oh Caroline.” (Roll your eyes at the word banger, too, that’s fine.) Healy’s ego is truly the Eighth Wonder of the World, but when his voice dips into its lowest, sultriest, most sincere, and least clever (?) register on the astounding, outlandishly grandiose “About You,” well. Well! Let’s just say he can totally tell by then, and so can you. —Harvilla
16. Cheat Codes, Black Thought and Danger Mouse
From Justin Sayles’s interview with Danger Mouse from August: Black Thoughts’ acumen won’t shock anyone who’s paid attention to his work with the Roots for three decades—or become a convert more recently with his viral Funk Flex freestyle. But with Burton working outside of hip-hop for so long, his contributions may make doubters perk up. In his time away from the genre, the producer’s skills have grown considerably: On Cheat Codes, his drums hit harder, his loops crackle louder, and his melodies swell and move unexpectedly. It’s loaded with striking moments of melancholy, like the beautiful coda to “Identical Deaths” or the posthumous MF DOOM collab “Belize.” But Burton has also honed his ability to deliver straight-ahead head-nodders, as he does on the A$AP Rocky–and–Run the Jewels–assisted “Strangers” or the chilling “Saltwater.” (The latter would sound like a perfect Griselda track even without the guest verse from Conway the Machine.) Cheat Codes surpasses even the best moments of his previous high-water hip-hop project: his 2003 Jemini the Gifted One collab, Ghetto Pop Life. Nearly 20 years after he helped define an era with The Grey Album, Burton has released his finest work as a beatsmith. —JS
15. Lucifer on the Sofa, Spoon
“For the first time in my life / I let myself be held / Like a big ol’ baby,” crows indomitable Spoon frontman Britt Daniel on what feels like his 200th fantastic album, and the ornery zest with which he rips into the words “big ol’ baby” alone ensures that this’ll be somebody’s all-time favorite. These fellas started out 20-plus years ago as major-label survivors turned indie-rock superheroes, but they long ago transcended such feeble pigeonholes and became just an all-time great rock ’n’ roll band, their songs skeletal but full to bursting, rough and noisy but exquisitely, precisely calibrated. Lucifer on the Sofa has a rawer, surlier edge than usual (“The Hardest Cut” lives up to its title), but the disarming tenderness of the second half especially is just as surprising. (“My Babe” and “Astral Jacket” live up to their titles, also.) And the incredible “Wild” is the perfect mix of laid-back groove and raucous ecstasy, a monster jam that suggests, for like the 2,000th time, that these guys really could put out albums this great forever. —Harvilla
14. The Forever Story, JID
From Jonathan Kermah’s review of The Forever Story from September: On The Forever Story, JID is like an athlete elevating his game to match the added pressure that comes with performing on a bigger stage. The production is grander. The guest list is loaded with legends and contemporary big fish. Yet still, what makes The Forever Story a rap album of the year contender is that JID finds ways to add layers to his artistry while never sacrificing the rap mechanics that got him to the dance. He’s still a lyrical assassin, but his willingness to dive deeper into the ocean of vulnerability and sharpen his focus as a storyteller are some of the most clear signs of elevation between The Never Story and The Forever Story.
On “Crack Sandwich,” JID breathes life into a menacingly grim instrumental while jumping from early memories of fighting siblings and fixing sandwiches when he didn’t have McDonald’s money, to getting into full-blown street fights with his brothers and sisters by his side. The spliced in clips of JID’s family recounting these stories only enhance how vivid he makes these stories. The intentionality and focus in storytelling is something that was much less a priority on previous projects. On “Kody Blu 31,” it’s as if JID were performing open-heart surgery on himself, as the lyrics bleed out of him. He sings, “You know it rains for somethin’, you know the pain’s for somethin’ / I hope a change is comin’, just keep on swangin’ on,” as he attempts to console a friend grieving the loss of her son over a tranquil, almost nautical Christo beat. And “Sistanem’’ reads like a last-ditch effort to maintain a bond with his sister as their relationship fractures while JID’s star rises.
13. Expert in a Dying Field, the Beths
Is the dying field an imploded love affair? Is the dying field the fizzy, fuzzy, gently raucous alt-rock favored by this great young New Zealand band as they lament the implosion? Is the dying field writing glowing blurbs for bands like this? “And I can close the door on us / But the room still exists / And I know you’re in it,” singer Elizabeth Stokes softly laments on the title track to the Beths’ third album, a truly amazing (and expert) slice of garage-born but stadium-worthy anthemia that transports you back to the ’90s, of course, and aligns the band with great current but vintage-friendly outfits like Wet Leg or Alvvays or Wolf Alice. But the Beths have a bittersweet charm all their own: They can shred and bash when they have to (see “Silence Is Golden” or “A Passing Rain”) but rend your heart with a single tender line whenever they want: The line “Some / Things / Are / Best / Left / To rot,” for example. Gently raucous alt-rock is not one of those things. —Harvilla
12. Boat Songs, MJ Lenderman
This guy was described to me as “Jason Molina with an Athletic subscription,” which is the weirdest musical recommendation I’ve ever gotten in my whole life, and the most accurate, too. “Jordan wanted to sign with Adidas for shoes,” begins the witty and rambunctious breakout album from this North Carolina garage-country savant. “But Nike gave him an offer that he could not refuse.” Then he starts talking about that alleged poison pizza in Utah; the song’s called “Hangover Game.” Amazing. MJ Lenderman’s got another song called “TLC Cagematch” (cheerfully downbeat, oddly empathetic), and another called “Dan Marino” (likewise, plus it peaks with the line “But I think Big Dan will be alright / For he’s a Hall of Famer”). Boat Songs is occasionally so shaggy and lo-fi it sounds like ol’ MJ fell out of said boat, but when the scruffy electric-guitar riffs mesh with the pedal steel just right, boom, transcendence: “Seed fell out of the feeder / And the birds are eating on the ground,” he drawls, a song called “You Are Every Girl to Me” blooming shambolically all around him. “Jackass is funny / Like the earth is round.” —Harvilla
11. Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain
Preacher’s Daughter echos with Americana: Jesus, whiskey, pistols, promises of the West, even a Harley. But one of the more subtle references within the universe of 24-year-old Hayden Silas Anhedönia’s sorrowful debut album—a collage of dream and doom pop—arrives in a frame for the music video for “American Teenager.” Anhedönia is dressed as Ethel Cain, her haunting Southern gothic alter ego, lying on the edge of a grassy field and looking toward the horizon, cutting an unmistakable silhouette of Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 realist piece, Christina’s World. The subject of the very famous work was Wyeth’s paraplegic neighbor, whose depiction struck a near-universal chord: what he described as “her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”
That’s the album in a nutshell. Anhedönia, who is trans, came up in a Southern Baptist community in North Florida as a self-described “day-one Jesus stan.” As her relationship with god, her community, and her family shifted alongside her understanding of her own identity, it became a war to exist. The freedom and pain of that fight plays out through the tragic protagonist of Cain, who searches for enlightenment in rivers and on top of dirty mattresses, and also the vocal range of Anhedönia, who slides through 76 minutes’ worth of angelic choir-like bridges, Gregorian chants, and cathartic shrieks with a startling nonchalance. On more accessible tracks like “American Teenager” and “Thoroughfare,” there’s a clear-eyed calm akin to speeding down an empty highway on a warm summer day. She pawns that calm for throbbing nihilism in “Gibson Girl” and thrashing terror in the album’s emotional climax, “Ptolemaea.” Taken as a whole, the project’s emotional arc can feel suffocatingly dark. But its vulnerable songwriting manages to toss out little glimmers of light and hope—a convincing argument for the conquest, if I ever heard one. —Alyssa Bereznak
10. It’s Almost Dry, Pusha T
To understand the significance and grandeur of It’s Almost Dry, the number 23 is of vital importance. That’s how many years Pusha T has been releasing rap records—some mind-splitting, others occasionally droning, all overwhelming in their allegiance to a singular vision—without a no. 1 album. That dates back to 1999. Things that happened in the meantime include but are not limited to: a war on terror, a financial collapse, a Black president and an orange one, a Capitol insurrection, and a global plague. 1999 to 2022. It’s a wilderness. Making it out of that requires what Push and his brother Malice aptly called “Grindin’” on their major-label debut.
It’s Almost Dry is a testament to the grind, to workmanship, to steady improvement mixed with a refusal to change. There’s a reason the record is a hodgepodge of Pharrell and Kanye beats, why it sounds both positively spooky and unassailably accessible, and that reason is simply: because the man wanted it to be. Push doesn’t care if the culture has changed. Push cares only about his sound, his nook. His head is still above ground, but he’s choosy with his muses. When we talked, in the spring, he said he wanted to be Scorsese. The dust has settled now. It’s Almost Dry is pure; utterly potent. Every auteur has their hit. This is his. —Pryor
9. Big Time, Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen’s voice, colossal but intimate, vulnerable when she wants to be but electrifyingly resolute when she has to be, was made for country music, for the warm caresses of deep reverb and pedal steel, for searing explorations of grief and soaring declarations of new love.
Big Time, the North Carolina–based singer-songwriter’s sixth full-length, is her proverbial Country Album at long last, and it shatters you and glues you back together from song to song, from the one that softly starts, “I had a dream last night / We were having a fight / It lasted 25 years,” to the one with the booming chorus of, “Why’d you have to go and make it weird?” She can make a hush feel gargantuan (“All the Flowers,” a waltz that revolves around the phrase “to be alive,” is extra devastating) and a massive crescendo (“Go Home” is a killer) feel like an impossibly detailed miniature universe. Details aside, when she sings, you stop in your tracks, you focus, you submit. Wherever she goes, go with her. —Harvilla
8. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar
For years, Kendrick Lamar has made bold attempts to critique the world around him, from the designer clothes we wear to the music we listen to. What separates Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers from its predecessors is the decision to put the mirror on himself. He grapples with his upbringing on “Father Time” and copes with abuse on “Mother I Sober.” The process of revealing such trauma wasn’t easy, as he coped with writer’s block, fear of cancellation, and depression.
The album was born from reflective absence. Writer’s block killed his creativity for much of the stretch, leading to the longest hiatus of his career. The conundrum forced him to reveal everything he’s been hiding, which is why this album is so special. For much of his career, Lamar has used his Compton upbringing as a badge of resilience. He got through the rigors of a forgotten world so it was time to celebrate, and use his music as a guide to get others out. He told us things were gonna be “Alright,” then told us to be “Humble” two years later. After a while, the message began to get preachy.
It’s not like this version of Lamar is angelic. He’s still the guy telling us to take off our weird-ass jewelry while wearing a $3 million crown of thorns. But now, he’s revealing his whole truth: that no amount of money, cars, and access will remove the scars his childhood gave him. Only internal work will do that. —Murdock
7. The Elephant Man’s Bones, Roc Marciano and the Alchemist
There’s a convincing and not at all far-fetched argument that Roc Marciano and the Alchemist are the two most influential figures of the past decade for a certain strain of hip-hop. Marciano’s Marcberg and Reloaded and the Alchemist’s, well, everything have defined the sound of post-boom-bap rap, the often-drumless, always-dusty New York–indebted music that sounds 10 percent better if you’re wearing an Avirex and a pair of Timbs. But while the two have paired up before—Marc’s “Flash Gordon” and Uncle Al’s “Roman Candles” just two of many highlights—they had yet to harness the full power of their collaborative potential. That changed with August’s The Elephant Man’s Bones, perhaps the best project of either of their respective recent runs. Alchemist’s backdrops are as sharp and propulsive as any of his classic works, with beats like “Quantum Leap” and “Zig Zag Zig” among his finest ever and others like “Daddy Kane” and “JJ Flash” taking on unexpected shapes and time signatures. In turn, Marci pushes himself in ways that feel true to his trademark style, but remain exciting. (Lines like, “They ain’t got shit on me, hell, I may as well be strippin’ in Chippendales / Naked with nothing but just a Richard Mille,” are stunning bits of word and syllable play that would make even Cam’ron jealous.) The Elephant Man’s Bones may not create entire new subgenres like their earlier works did. But it is a testament to two artists now in their 40s finding ways to sound as fresh and vibrant as ever. —Sayles
6. God Save the Animals, Alex G
From Eric Ducker’s profile of Alex G from September: God Save the Animals, Giannascoli’s newest album and his fourth for Domino Recording Company, will be released this Friday. The elements that have come to define an Alex G record are all present: There are absorbing, if hazy, tales where some sketchy situation lurks not too far below the surface. There are unexpected genre flips that take the music beyond the realm of standard indie rock. There are myriad vocal effects that literally give him a different voice from song to song. But God Save the Animals is also another step forward in a discography built on continuous progression. Each album reveals new dimensions of Giannascoli as an artist that he previously hadn’t unlocked.
As the name God Save the Animals implies, religious themes and allusions pervade the record. Alex G song titles are usually only a word or two long, and those words are usually either nouns or proper nouns. Here the tracklist includes “Mission,” “Blessing,” and “Miracles.” He begins the album with the pious lines, “After all / People come and people go away / Yeah but God with me he stayed,” and ends with a song in which he hollers the absolving plea, “Forgive yesterday, I choose today.”
Giannascoli says his upbringing wasn’t religious at all and he hasn’t had a recent spiritual awakening. It’s just that some people he’s close to have found religion later in life, so it was on his mind. “I wasn’t thinking about any bigger picture when I was writing,” he says. “I was just seeing where these powerful motifs would bring me when I was throwing different words together.”
5. Blue Rev, Alvvays
From Ian Cohen’s profile of Alvvays from October: If it’s not designed to topple the titanic Event Pop albums locked into the top spots in most year-end lists, like the Alvvays albums before it, Blue Rev is a Great Unifier. Some critics placed Alvvays and Antisocialites in the lineage of C86 and Sarah Records, paradigms of twee, cardigans-and-pins indie-pop; others heard echoes of the wave of late aughts bands like Vivian Girls or Dum Dum Girls that applied a homespun, fuzzed-out approach to ’60s girl groups. While those modes rarely held much currency outside the realm of music criticism, Alvvays have always felt more contemporary and populist in their lyrical mien and melodic generosity. Even in their absence, Alvvays felt strangely ubiquitous, a RIYL in what felt like at least 50 percent of my promo pile. In light of the supposed, persistent marginalization of guitar-centered indie rock, there’s no real explaining how Alvvays have managed their elevated status besides writing craftier, catchier songs.
Whether or not Blue Rev is craftier and catchier than its predecessors, it is most definitely more than Alvvays and Antisocialites in every way; though at 14 songs and a shade under 40 minutes, it’s “epic” in the context of Alvvays. Still, from the very first seconds, Alvvays truly sound like a more hi-def, bionic version of themselves. “Pharmacist” pump-fakes with [Molly] Rankin’s unadorned voice before getting carried away on a tidal surge of glide guitars; yet, lest they be taken for a sparkly shoegaze band, [Alec] O’Hanley adds a discordant guitar solo toward the end, foreshadowing an album that’s both richer and messier than anything Alvvays had made prior.
4. Un Verano Sin Ti, Bad Bunny
No one is safe from Bad Bunny. He’s pop music’s grim reaper: Harry Styles, Post Malone, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar have all fallen prey to his scythe. Un Verano Sin Ti, Bunny’s fourth studio album, has returned to the no. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 multiple times, has broken the Spotify record for the most streams of an album in a month, and for 11 weeks has managed to breeze past 100,000 album-equivalent units with relative ease.
As inevitable as Bunny’s dominance now seems, it’d mean very little if his 23-song opus were bullshit, streaming fodder made to game the system. But in a year when the biggest stars are more concerned with fumbling their way through various dance genres or mining years of generational trauma, Un Verano Sin Ti is a rare oasis. The unrelenting scope of Bad Bunny sees the star working through dembow, bachata, techno, and everything in between with a singular drive that’s too enjoyable to deny. “The album is very Caribbean, in every sense: with its reggaeton, its mambo, with all those rhythms,” Bunny told The New York Times in May. “I like it that way.”
Bunny is like a consummate party host, making sure the sheer charisma of him and his collaborators keeps the barrier to entry low. There’s an electricity to a song like “Tití Me Preguntó” and its accompanying video, where the lilting sample of Anthony Santos’s “No Te Puedo Olvidar” bleeds into an explosive frenzy of drums and sirens. “Ojitos Lindos” is anchored by Bomba Estéreo, but Bunny’s hums around the three-minute mark feel like watching soft serve melt. In the coming months, there will be a slew of records begging the populace to turn away from the never-ending collapse of modern society, but Un Verano Sin Ti will likely be the only one to do it so effortlessly. —Charles Holmes
3. Aethiopes, billy woods
Like the most ambitious major-label album of the year, Aethiopes searches for meaning in generational trauma. But where Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers turns a mirror on its protagonist, the latest LP from billy woods finds pain everywhere: the stoops of the “slum villages” he inhabits, far-flung lands that white tourists come to colonize and cannibalize, the museum exhibits that exploit historical Black pain. He sees himself in those dioramas, in the drug-addicted local he says “no hard feelings” to. The world becomes a reflection of him, and Aethiopes a snapshot of that reflection.
A New York underground veteran, woods is very likely the best working writer in rap. In nearly 20 years, he’s released 17 full-length projects, including solo ventures and collaborative efforts alongside Elucid in Armand Hammer. Nearly every woods project can be described as serpentine, but Aethiopes stands as one of his densest and most rewarding works. Named after an archaic term Europeans used for Africans, the album tackles “Blackness as an idea, Africa as an idea, Africa as a reality,” as woods told The Fader upon its release. The stories he weaves are spellbinding, connecting hundreds of years of history to a single present-day moment. You can occasionally be entranced by the vivid details of a song like “Christine” or the references to 9/11, The Stranger, and the racism of capitalism on “Versailles.” But woods is a masterful lyricist who understands how to snap you back to attention with a single couplet. (“The future isn’t flying cars / It’s Rachel Dolezal absolved” is among the sharpest—and bleakest—truisms you’ll ever hear on a song.)
If this makes Aethiopes sound like homework, that’s unintentional—the production, supplied by DJ Preservation, is uniformly excellent, and the features, which include indie-rap stalwarts El-P and Breeze Brewin, harken back to a forgotten era of underground rap. Aethiopes is enjoyable on a purely aesthetic level. But it’s also the kind of album that demands you dig in and peel back the layers, just as woods has done. The results can sometimes be upsetting, but more often than not, they’re revelatory. —Sayles
2. MOTOMAMI, Rosalía
Rosalía’s third album could’ve been a success simply by just existing. The 30-year-old Spanish superstar has seen her star rise to astronomical heights in recent years, landing features on songs by Travis Scott and the Weeknd, and netting a mainstream Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (to go along with a few Latin Grammy wins). Repeating the formula that previously worked for her—one built on traditional flamenco, albeit pushed in experimental directions via her last LP, El Mal Querer—would have yielded a massive success. But that’s not what truly fascinating pop stars do, and that’s certainly not what Rosalía did.
Arriving in March, MOTOMAMI moves beyond the flamenco that made her famous, instead fusing avant-garde pop with progressive Latin music. It’s consistently thrilling—at its best, like on the electrifying “CUUUUuuuuuute” or the opener “SAOKO,” she moves through genres swiftly, going from hyper-pop to driving reggaeton to jazz breakdowns with ease. When MOTOMAMI stands still—to the extent it does—Rosalía still excites: “CANDY,” one of the album’s sultriest songs, samples Burial’s landmark garage anthem “Archangel.” Some moments recall Björk, while others recall M.I.A. (who gets a shout-out on MOTOMAMI’s lone flamenco track, “Bulerías”). Sometimes, when Rosalía sounds the sweetest, she’s being the dirtiest—like on “HENTAI,” a soft ballad that we implore you not to Google the name of if you’re not already familiar. There’s always something deeper at play on this album. Largely self-produced by Rosalía with help from trusted collaborators like El Guincho and hired guns like the Neptunes, MOTOMAMI is pure musical auteurism—a vision of where not only the artist is headed, but also where she’s taking pop music. It’s a proposition she understands all too well: As she sings on “SAOKO,” “Yo soy muy mía, yo me transformo.” Translation: “I am very much me, I transform.” —Sayles
1. Renaissance, Beyoncé
Hyperbole is the lingua franca that unites card-carrying hive members with all other observers of Queen B’s work. We’ve long passed the point where everything Beyoncé does gets draped in the excellence of everything she’s ever done. Her next swing is almost always commonly regarded as her best swing. This makes it difficult to hammer home the sheer significance, the grandeur, the all-time bad-assery of her seventh studio album, Renaissance, back in July. Nobody likes to be redundant. But then, there it is, staring us blankly in the face: She did it again.
Tender, bombastic, personal, calculated, loose, and precise—the album ruled the year off range alone. Renaissance is a work indebted to Black queer artistry (and the uncle who reared B in it) that manages to make anyone who’s pressed Play feel like she’s really just talking to them alone. A running list of achievements: She lures Grace Jones out of celestial retirement; she rhymes her own name with Givenchy; she diagnoses the cause of American peril (it’s her). Dance music melds with Afrobeats, techno, trap, occasional excursions to church, and odes to the kind of deep-down love that’d make a saint sell their soul.
There are earworm hits (“Break My Soul”), syrupy jam sessions (“Virgo’s Groove”), bum-rush edicts (“Move”), and runway anthems (“Alien Superstar”). She works over every inch of 16 tracks, perfecting, connecting, dissecting. Which is kind of a roundabout way of saying Renaissance is a picture of the greatest artist of this century at the peak of her skills, rested, and ready for something new. It’s the best Beyoncé album, until of course, the next Beyoncé album. —Pryor