Thursday, we covered the best albums of the half-year. Today, it’s the best songs. Just 10 this time—a quick overview of the songs that made us dance, feel, and jump through the ceiling in the first six months of 2022. Be sure to check all of our mid-year culture coverage here, and check out this week’s Ringer Music Show to hear Charles Holmes and Rob Harvilla debate their way through their personal album and song lists.
10. “Lye,” Earl Sweatshirt
The Earl Sweatshirt experience is akin to watching the evolutionary cycle of primordial ooze. It’s slow, painstaking, and messy, and years of hoping for something to emerge from the muck is either deeply rewarding or frustrating depending upon your mood. Maybe that’s a byproduct of immense talent. Even when it’s difficult to comprehend what Earl is reaching for, by the time you look up he’s already at the plateau itching for something new.
“Lye” is one of those records. Produced by Alchemist, the song is the rare burst of hope in a discography more concerned with existential grays. Built on a looped sample of Riff Raff’s “Havakak,” Earl’s intricate lyrics drunkenly tumble out over horns that are a few degrees removed from triumphant. What he fills within the spaces is a story of knowing a higher power is there, but struggling through the process of finding them. In one of the most beautiful lyrics of the year, Earl leaves the listener on an optimistic note: “Toss the sword back into the vines / Callin’ out for Lord, lookin’ low and high / Finally found it at the core of my dimming fire.” Finding salvation within, Earl leaves on a mischievous note as he invokes the title’s namesake, “what’s a little lye.” Who knew a song ostensibly about hair relaxer could spiritually cut so deep? —Charles Holmes
9. “The Truth Hurts,” Ralfy the Plug
Just before last Christmas, Drakeo the Ruler—one of the most original stylists L.A. rap ever produced—was ambushed by dozens of people wearing red and stabbed backstage at a festival he was scheduled to perform at. Within hours, he would be pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. His killing, which remains officially unsolved, brought a heartbreaking end to one of the brightest careers in recent hip-hop history—one that had already had years robbed from it by an overzealous prosecutor and labyrinthine judicial system.
Those tragedies gave birth to “The Truth Hurts,” a sentimental but never saccharine tribute by Drakeo’s brother, Ralfy the Plug. In the same conversational, eccentric flow that the duo made the sound du jour of West Coast rap, Ralfy addresses the circumstances around the killing with cocksure resolve: When his brother went through his greatest tribulations—his indictment in connection with a murder he didn’t commit—other crews in the city couldn’t care less. When Drakeo came home with a few notebooks worth of rhymes and a newfound fame, those same people felt nothing but jealousy. (Ralfy puts it more succinctly, with his trademark wit: “A lot of n----s actin’ like bitches, Mrs. Doubtfire / N----s must’ve really been mad at the fact that our crowds was louder.”) The emotional apex of “The Truth Hurts” comes when he describes the moment of his brother’s attack, painting him not as a victim but as a hero with a mile-wide grin: “Drakeo stood on 10 toes with a smile, against a thousand fighters.” It’s an outpouring of grief, a celebration, and a lionization of a legend who was only beginning to get his proper due. Like Ralfy, we know the truth, even if it hurts sometimes. —Justin Sayles
8. “Wet Dream,” Wet Leg
From the legit geniuses who brought you “I went to school and I got the big D” comes this summer’s wryest and goofiest and most vicious rock ’n’ roll epigraph: Take your pick between “You said, ‘Baby, do you want to come home with me? / I’ve got Buffalo ‘66 on DVD’” or “What makes you think you’re good enough / To think about me when you’re touching yourself?” Wet Leg, the miraculously droll and stupendously raucous duo from the Isle of Wight who just might be the 21st century’s Kim and Kelley Deal, blew up outta nowhere with the brilliant fuzz-bomb single “Chaise Longue,” and their self-titled debut album delivers on that promise, nowhere more so than on this rude and infectious alt-rock ethering of some bro too hapless to be toxic: “You climb onto the bonnet / And you’re licking the windscreen / I’ve never seen anything so obscene.” Sing along, but resist the urge to tap on the glass. —Rob Harvilla
7. “Break My Soul,” Beyoncé
The line is thin between deliverance and damnation. There are, for sure, other insights to be gleaned from from “Break My Soul”—Beyoncé’s first single for her first true solo album since Lemonade—but a couple of weeks post-release, the slim difference between pain and gain won’t stop kicking up dust in the corners of my mind. This isn’t sacrilege. The song’s a smash. It’s dance music. It’s got a little four-on-the-floor bassline (partly indebted to Robin S.’s “Show Me Love”). An acoustic piano serenade and a call-and-response hook. There’s tasty repetition. When Beyoncé hits the “k” in “break my soul” it’s not entirely clear whether tectonic plates have sprouted diaphragms and are hiccuping, or whether she’s just wielding the same guttural verve that she’s dog-collared popular music with for approximately two decades (and counting). Yes, yes, the message of being unbroken in the face of a global plague, voracious wealth-seekers, and all the various -isms might be a tad flimsy coming from a multi-billionaire/mogul/diva/saleslady. But it’s going to be the song of the summer, you know. It’s going to float around for a while. It’ll be covered, kidz-bopped, replayed, remixed.
That’s cool. I’m down. Totally down. But is, um, everybody gonna be singing it? Can we at least make exceptions? Rules? Regulations? Russell Westbrook blared “Break My Soul” on Twitter last week: I was pained and not from the pitch. Forty-seven-million-per-year, misses backboards, doesn’t watch film—soul won’t be broken: This a weapon formed against me and it is prospering and it’s jamming and Beyoncé is the soundtrack. This is not right. This is a distortion. Nay, an abomination. Thin, thin lines and such. —Lex Pryor
6. “Cash in Cash Out,” Pharrell Williams Featuring 21 Savage and Tyler, the Creator
The five best parts of “Cash in Cash Out,” ranked:
5. The left-right punch of the chorus, when 21 Savage warps the titular phrase into something hypnotic.
4. The perfect chemistry between the murderously deadpan 21 and the back-flippingly eccentric Tyler, two of the best working rappers today who have somehow never collaborated.
3. The thought of Pharrell FaceTiming Tyler “with this fucking weird face on” after he heard the rapper’s verse. As Tyler told GQ: “He didn’t even say anything. And then he just hung the fuck up.”
2. The spare, neck-breaking Pharrell beat, which may be the best rap backdrop he’s ever laid down, Non–Pusha T/Clipse Division.
1. The thought of 21’s bodyguard actually looking like a horse. I already wasn’t planning on stepping to him, but good god. —Sayles
5. “Pushin P,” Gunna
With its Wheezy-produced beat and splashy features from Future and Young Thug, Gunna’s “Pushin P” captured the imagination of the internet when it arrived early this year. The letter “P” infiltrated pop culture, even if the artist himself couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell you exactly what it meant. The single—which shot up the Billboard charts—seemed to indicate a big 2022 for Gunna. Unfortunately, that’s been put on hold, as he, Young Thug, and other YSL affiliates are currently being held without bail on RICO charges. —Logan Murdock
4. “Texts Go Green,” Drake
Drake is 35 years old. This isn’t an ageist blurb about the Toronto rapper being too old to still complain about the same exes, strippers, groupies, and wifeys he’s built a multi-million-dollar career on. Instead, this is a moment to appreciate the beauty of exhaustion. Drake seems tired and “Texts Go Green” is the personification of that debilitating feeling of making the same mistake over and over again expecting a different result.
An artist needs to earn a lyric like “I feel like everything these days leads to nothing.” There’s nothing quite as psychically damaging as the thought of Drake sitting in a recording booth pondering another first date, another DM slide, another year spent sending texts that ultimately mean nothing. Even the seemingly horny bridge—“You’re dealing with me rough / I know you like it rough / But this might be too much”—is a bummer. It’s the sonic equivalent of a lothario asking why there’s never enough time for post-coital cuddling. Over the bouncing Black Coffee and Esona Tyolo beat, Drake seems torn between his self-appointed need to soundtrack messy dancefloor nights and the reality that sometimes when the beat goes on forever you’re left with a desolate cavern of loneliness that even the most sought-after iMessage can’t fix. —Holmes
3. “Back to the Radio,” Porridge Radio
Suddenly it’s an embarrassment of riches out there for fans of painfully literate and ecstatically self-loathing English rock bands who don’t so much sing as declaim or rant or lament, but ain’t nobody wringing more pure arena-sized catharsis out of three minutes and seven seconds than this endless monster crescendo from Porridge Radio’s splendid and anguished second album, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky. “We almost got better, we’re so unprepared for this,” bellows singer-guitarist Dana Margolis, her voice wobbling thrillingly, her confidence shattered but also somehow unbreakable. “Running straight at it / I’m not the right man for this.” This is indeed the power ballad you put on when you need to psych yourself up to run through a brick wall but you know it’s gonna knock you flat on your ass. The beauty, and the catharsis, is in the failure; the victory is in never quite being prepared. —Harvilla
2. “F.N.F. (Let’s Go),” GloRilla & Hitkidd
I don’t know GloRilla particularly well. Besides hailing from Memphis and having a viral song or two under her belt, she’s still a relative enigma. But often emotions delivered through song can transcend the divide between what’s known and what isn’t. The joy GloRilla belts “I’m F-R-E-E, fuck n---- free” with is so infectious you too want to be unencumbered by any and all “fuck n-----” in your personal life. As if knowing her listeners would ponder what GloRilla will do with all the free time being “S-I-N-G-L-E again” provides, she ecstatically states that she’s “Outside hanging out the window with my ratchet-ass friends.” And maybe that’s what makes “F.N.F.” feel as immediate as it does refreshing. GloRilla’s vision of happiness is one of the rare straightforward desires in an increasingly complex and morbid reality. Even as the world is burning, you too can stop at a red light and twerk on some headlights. Sometimes that’s all we can control. —Holmes
1. “Mother I Sober,” Kendrick Lamar
“Mother I Sober” is, among other things, a bellwether. What it provokes is tethered to how you regard the entirety of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, the latest and most unsettlingly distinct record in Kendrick Lamar’s discography. Is the song, at its core, music? Or is it therapy bleeding into art? Sonically the track is so spare, just a heartbeat drum pattern and solemn key riff, as to lose the backbone of what we have up to now collectively termed “hip-hop.” Though he never really loses the rhyme scheme, Kenny’s not exactly rapping, he’s purging, spewing thoughts, fears, regrets, and multi-generational realizations over 16-bar intervals. The hook, whispered by Beth Gibbons of Portishead fame, isn’t really a hook, but a thought.
It’s not entirely clear whether Lamar made “Mother I Sober” for us or for himself. Is it fair to pick at that reality given the subject matter (sexual abuse, familial trauma, infedelity), considering, also, that we don’t do it with everything else we listen to—in Lamar’s music but also in the genre at large? What makes “Mother I Sober” the best track on the album, and arguably the greatest achievement of the rapper’s career, is that it isn’t interested in answers. Questions beget more questions; the lack of surety is the point. It’s a song about everything. It’s mucky, out of his system, and into the world. —Pryor