The 2022 best albums

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This was music’s emancipation year. After 18 months of delay, restraint and career/identity crises, pop music returned – rejuvenated – to the dancefloor, flouting a revived sexual confidence (TMI Charli XCX, Rosalia, Beyonce?) But she was also suffering from a hangover of pandemic self-introspection (Mitski and Rina Sawayama; Beyonce again: u okay huns?). Its lockdown listening seems to have opened up its horizons. The mainstream accepted industrial rock, experimental electronics, as well as a leftfield sonic mindset, which made genre-fluid pop records almost the norm.

Alternate acts took a different approach to the ghetto, however. Yard Act, Fontaines DC and Wet Leg evolved the post-punk and sprechgesang trends in more accessible directions, the latter act even defying the algorithm’s diktat of conformity to shed welcome light on their eclectic Isle Of Wight scene, turning heads to the wonderful Plastic Mermaids. Oversharing and tubthumping were common in 2022. However, this was mostly in the spirit of musical revival and tentative celebration. These are the records that are most worthy of celebration.

20. Lizzo – Special

Lizzo flute-funks the world with this motivational disco track, continuing to carbonate it. Only the most churlish could resist her goofy-cussy invitation to celebrate “bad bitch o’clock”. But you’ll have to bust some moves to keep up with the tendon-twanging pace because, as she warns us on “The Sign”: “I’ve been training, I can flex that ass/ So when I shake it, I can shake it fast.” Shimmering with spandex-sprung winks at glitterball classics from the likes of Chic, Irene Cara and Gloria Estefan, this is a big-hearted, beautiful sung party album for all ages. HB

19. Wet Leg – Wet Leg

Entirely justifying last year’s rush of excitement around “Chaise Longue”, the Isle Of Wight duo’s debut album was the sort of immaculate indie pop collection that entire scenes used to be built around. Its infectious melodies, where Blur and The Cardigans met early PJ Harvey, seemed effortlessly plucked from the ether, its concerns – fragile love, frank lust, shopping on drugs – were casually modern and its charm was utterly beguiling. Glastonbury flocked, the Grammys knocked and any talk of “this generation’s Ting Tings” was roundly silenced. MB

18. Plastic Mermaids – It’s Not Comfortable to Grow

If Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce was particularly arsed about playing Reading & Leeds again, Plastic Mermaids’ second album is the sort of record you’d imagine him making. The Isle of Wight five-piece – sometime cohorts of Wet Leg – imbued the vast yet vulnerable textures of Pierce, Grandaddy and The Flaming Lips with the electronic alt-pop gloss and boyband hooks of The 1975 or Glass Animals and emerged as the grand indie showstoppers of their generation. MB

17. Ezra Furman – All of Us Flames

Or Torn in The USA. Ezra Furman’s fuzz-scorched evocations of classic rock’n’roll, drivetime synth rock and Springsteen largesse have rarely been as welcoming as on her eighth album, all the better to illuminate pressing themes of gender identity, transgressive sexuality, religious dilemma and feeling lost and afraid in a combative post-pandemic society. “Lilac and Black” was a tormented trans power anthem; “Ally Sheedy In The Breakfast Club” a moving portrait of gender envy; “Come Close” a ballad that found romance in snatched moments of furtive sex with hobos and truckers. This is a deeply personal proclamation, and also a plea for a ceasefire in culture wars. MB

16. Rina Sawayama – Hold the Girl

All-encompassing: Rina Sawayama (Satellite 414)

All-encompassing: Rina Sawayama (Satellite 414)

Only a few records from 2022 merited comparisons to AC/DC, Paramore, Lady Gaga, and The Corrs. And The Village People, but that Rina Sawayama’s second album encompassed all this and far more is testament to her comprehensive grasp on pop culture. Her 2020 debut was more introspective. Sawayama, Hold On To The Girl set weighty topics – childhood trauma, the immigrant experience, religious erosion of LGBT rights – to country pop, industrial rock, hi-NRG dance, even a dash of bhangra. While the title was meant to be supportive for her younger self it was clear that she was not going to be held back. MB

15. Phoenix – Alpha Zulu

It is filled with elastic beats, edgy melodies, and quirky stream-of-conscious philosophy. Alpha Zulu The French hipsters were Talking Heads at their best. The album was recorded in the Louvre during the pandemic. Thomas Mars took inspiration from the bizarre mix of artifacts. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter was drafted in for production, bringing crispness to their clever, quirky-jerky style. Addictive. HB

14. Mitski – Laurel Hell

“Who will I be tonight?” Mitski Miyawaki deadpanned at the opening of her long-awaited sixth album and the following half-hour of lyrical soul-searching and sonic shape-shifting dug deep on the conundrum. A self-proclaimed “album for transformation” which went through punk and country iterations before ending up as introspective and experimental electronic pop, Laurel Hell In gentle melodic drones of industrial dream pop, dark beats and bright orchestral disco, Mitski wrapped songs about self-forgiveness. Tonight, it transpired, Mitski would be alt-pop’s lugubrious Lorde. MB

13. Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain

It’s a long title for such a simple album. These songs are a collection of sweet, honest songs from the American indie-folk darlings. Adrienne Lenker has a magpie’s beady eye for the details that makes her lyrics resonate. Against a creaking, woody backdrop of acoustic guitar, fiddle, accordion and harp she sings of sweet honey stirred into hot tea, dried roses, ivy, eagles, apples and “crows gnawing on the dawn”. Nourishing. HB

12. Spoon – Lucifer on the Sofa

The post-grunge National, Austin indie-rock mainstays Spoon have gradually slogged their way to widespread respect, and their 10th album might have been mistaken for a suave alt-rock victory lap if it weren’t so deeply embedded in their very individual evolution. Lean, light and melodic. Lucifer on the Sofa Britt Daniel, a singer, mastered blues, country, gospel, and retro rock into a beautiful, angular shape. With the same stoic confidence as a Julian Casablancas, Britt Daniel managed to keep it all together. It was still the devil who had the best songs, and now it seemed, the remote too. MB

11. Stormzy – This is What I Mean

Soulful mood: Stormzy (Getty Images For Bauer Media)

Soulful mood: Stormzy (Getty Images For Bauer Media)

Croydon’s Grimefather kicks off his big, banger boots and slips into a more soulful (and soul-searching) mood on this mature third album. He still grips you with a natural storyteller’s flow, like he’s sitting beside you at a London bus stop. But he’s leaning back, more vulnerable and less in your face (while keeping up the pressure on our politicians). Thanks to the songwriting assistance of jazz wizard Jacob Collier, and elegant touches of keyboard music from Dion Wardle, the melodies are richer. Throughout, he’s looking for a love that’s “wholesome as collard greens”. HB

10. Weyes Blood – Hearts are aglow in the darkness

“Living in the wake of overwhelming changes/ We’ve all become strangers,” lamented Natalie Mering over the vintage synths of her fifth – and best – album as Weyes Blood.

She sounds like a 21st-century Karen Carpenter. Her rich, velvety voice allows her to inject romantic, almost swooning melodies with a touch of sadness and hope. She stirs harpsichord, flute and sci-fi proggy effects into songs which hymn the human ability to grow – even glow – through pain. HB

9. Jamie T – The Theory of Whatever

Jamie Treays has form in emerging from lengthy silences to reclaim his crown as indie’s street poet laureate. Fifth album The Theory of Whatever was among his widest-ranging records yet, both musically – hallucinogenic ballroom ballads rubbed up against gothic synth raps and barrelling rock tracks resembling an emo Smiths – and socially. Between the oligarch’s mansions and gold brick apartments toured by “Keying Lamborghinis” and “St George Wharf Tower” and the gutter life of “British Hell”, Treays documented Britain’s gaping wealth chasm and its devastating consequences with vigour, vision and, at times, the wild energy of a cocaine bear. MB

8. Angel Olsen – Big Time

The blissed out contentment expressed on Olsen’s sixth album were baked during a period of intense personal tumult. These swooningly romantic and country-sy songs were written by Olsen, who was also gay. She fell in love with a man, lost her parents, and came out as gay. Bereavement saw her taking solace in the simple pleasures (like coffee and campfires) listed on “All the Good Times” and found her more able to speak her mind. The pedal steel smiles and moves like a cat listening to a record. It offers solace from the pain. HB

7. Taylor Swift – Midnight

Light relief: the sleeve of Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’

Light relief: the sleeve of Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’

Swift returned to cryptic confessional music after her pandemic albums. This album was the first to take all 10 Billboard Hot 100 spots. Over murky electronic grooves, she takes cool swipes at industry sexism on “Lavender Haze” and sinks her claws into famous exes on “Maroon” and “Karma”. She doesn’t let herself off the hook, either. “Anti-Hero” sees her skewering the “covert narcissism” behind her acts of public kindness and delivers a hook that’s spawned a million memes: “It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.” HB

6. Yard Act – The Overload

Yard Act was the moment when the sprechgesang revival had its Arctic Monkeys moment. Wry details of the Yorkshire everyday – courtesy of conversational bard-about-town James Smith – aimed at the heart of the mainstream. Over compulsive post-rock backings, Smith spoke of the plentiful malaises of Brexit Britain, endgame capitalism and small-town life on the “bottom rung”, albeit brightened by the prospect of instant rock wealth. In “Tall Poppies” and “100% Endurance”, too, they had some of the most incisive and reflective musings of the era. HB

5. Charli XCX – Crash

Gleaming form: Charli XCX (Press image)

Gleaming form CharliXCX (Press Image)

Inspired by David Cronenberg’s film of the JG Ballard novel about people sexually aroused by celebrity car crashes, Charlotte Aitchison’s fifth album is a steamy electro-pop joyride. Each gleaming chrome track is pimped with Eighties and Nineties references: keep an eye in the rearview for nods to the Eurythmics, Madonna and Robin S. And don’t even think of getting sentimental. “Candlelight on a starry night, you brush my hair to the side and tell me I’m pretty?” she eyerolls. “YUCK! Quit acting like a puppy!” HB

4. Fontaines DC – Skinty Fia

Compelling cocktail: Fontaines DC (Polocho)

Compelling cocktail: Fontaines DC (Polocho)

The Dublin post-punk quartet created a captivating cocktail of surly grit, romantic yearning and defensively huddled in London at the time of the pandemic. Grian Chatten, the frontman, is in ferocious form. He snarls in triumph and grumbles in defeat. At times he’s threatening to “hurt ya, desert ya, get away with mur-da” and at others regretting that “I let her prize apart my ribcage like a crackhead at the blinds.” Ferocious work from both guitarists, too. HB

3. Kendrick Lamar – Mr Morale & the Big Steppers

Long-awaited return Lamar plays Glastonbury (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Lamar makes long-awaited return to Glastonbury (Copyright 202022 The Associated Press). All rights reserved.

Five years after the release of his triple-platinum-selling, Pulitzer prize-winning album, DAMNThe Californian rapper, ‘Rip Off’, returned with a sprawling and ambitious investigation into fatherhood, which included his children on the cover, race, culture wars sexual abuse, gender violence, queerness, addiction, materialism, and the general state. “Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast / Then he caught Covid and prayed to Pfizer for relief,” he raps on “Rich Spirit”. Jazzy, melodic and conflicted, but also questing. HB

2. Beyonce – Renaissance

Bar fly: Beyoncé in artwork for ‘Renaissance’ (Mason Poole)

Bar fly: Beyoncé in artwork for ‘Renaissance’ (Mason Poole)

“I’m finally on the other side, I finally found the extra smiles…” If the cover of 2016’s Lemonade – Beyonce head down and hiding from the world behind luxuriant furs – spoke to her broken mindset in the wake of discovering the existence of Becky with the good hair, the title and sleeve of her seventh album Renaissance The proud return of the empress with self-worth was suggested. This was the first in a series of projects that are yet to be defined. Lemonade It is still safe and sound in its experimental cocoon. In a catch-all spirit of musical modernism, trap, house, glitchtronica, disco, ragga, South African gqom, muted R&B and future funk were all lobbed into a heady mix, with songs blending into each other and shifting course mid-flow. The Carters’ lockdown shagging, judging by “Summer Renaissance” and “Cuff It”, was pretty wild too. MB

1. Rosalia – Motomami

Triumphant: Spanish pop provocateur Rosalia (Columbia)

Triumphant: Spanish pop provocateur Rosalia (Columbia)

The Spanish star is a master of Latin music and has released her third album. It features Pharrell Williams and James Blake producing the album and Tokischa singing. Her old flamenco rhythms are transformed into loud drum beats as her dance-pop combines reggaeton and bachata with hip-hop, salsa, cyberpunk, sizzling sounds and glitchy balladeering. Her powerful Spanish-singing voice is almost exclusively in Spanish. It can be used to channel either pure devotion to God or the most intense, grittiest of physical desires. “Yo me transformo” and “F*** el estilo,” she declares on “Saoko”. It is all, in her own words: “so, so, so, so, so, so good.” HB

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