Four albums stood out this year, and a disproportionate number of my top 100 songs on this list come from those four albums. In past years, I avoided including too many songs from any one particular album or artist, but this year I loosened those rules. If an album is full of deserving tracks, embrace the meritocracy, I say. I’m cool with it. Also, surely many of you will be happy to know that despite releasing a new album, the top spot this year is not going to Taylor Swift like it did last year. And yes, I do still stand by last year’s choice! [Read about it here].
It’s possible that the return to post-pandemic routine got in the way of listening to and discovering as much music as the last few quarantine-filled years. Does that serve as a sufficient excuse for significantly less album and artist diversity in this list? Maybe not, but it sounds like a whole lot better of an excuse than laziness at least. Seriously, at the end of the day, I think there were 4 great albums that were truthfully head and shoulders above the rest.
Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Rosalía, and Steve Lacy. This is the quartet responsible for those distinguished four albums. Two arena-trotting members of the popular music elite and two artists freshly anointed as leaders of a new generation. Kendrick laments about toxic culture and his decision to choose self over society [read about it in depth here]; Beyonce revels in 80’s/90’s queer discotheque nostalgia and revival; Rosalía extends her seemingly endless creative tentacles to weave together an eclectic tapestry of latin music; and Steve Lacy transformed from a lo-fi indie hero into an inescapable viral sensation worth the hype.
But this isn’t an album list, so let’s get to the songs that shape and define all the albums we loved from this past year.
And after you’ve checked them out, I want to hear from you. What did I miss? What will I regret not including here? What song do you love so much that it makes you spiteful that I didn’t include it? Which of your favorites are you pumped to see? Please share, I’m genuinely curious. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
10. Last Last – Burna Boy
On most of his songs, Burna Boy goes back and forth between English, Yoruba (Nigerian), and a pidgin of the two. For his English-speaking audiences, this cross-over will usually come across as a blend of the familiar and the foreign. Burna Boy’s approach on Last Last is no exception; the following lyrics, sung in different tongues, flow together coherently at the end of the second verse: “Maybe another time, maybe another life you will be my wife and we’ll get it right… e don cast, last last, na everybody go chop breakfast.” There’s an arresting beauty in the way he’s able to convey his message by duping listeners like me into thinking I actually comprehend every word he’s saying. When I read the Last Last lyrics after enjoying the song, I quickly notice my sad lack of literal comprehension. But when I return to listen to the song again, I’m sympathizing with every heartbroken word Burna Boy sings, as if I suddenly comprehend every word. So, we may not comprehend all the details in Last Last, but we feel every second of it. And that’s even more important.
9. Home Maker – Sudan Archives
2022 was the year of the opening track, and Home Maker by Sudan Archives is the best kind of opening track. There’s not a more exciting way to start an album than by restarting the first song 3-4 times before moving on because you’re that into it. That’s the Home Maker effect. It’s a tone-setting anticipation-building leadoff that finds the violinist sing-rapping: “only bad bitches in my trellis… and baby I’m the baddest.” Sudan Archives, known for her experimental style, may go for a slightly more familiar sound on her new album Natural Brown Prom Queen, but her vision remains bold, wry, and unapologetic. All of this is showcased in the Home Maker music video, where she dances and frolics around a discounted home furniture store as interested men gradually make their way to the couch she’s on. It’s romantic, salacious, and sarcastic – all at the same time.
8. The Heart Pt. 5 – Kendrick Lamar
The Heart Pt. 5 is both a prelude to and a summary of Kendrick Lamar’s 5th album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. At the song’s release, longtime fans immediately recognized it as the continuation of a longstanding Kendrick Lamar tradition: the release of urgent stream-of-consciousness raps in-between albums. Despite being unreleased deep cuts, The Heart series has become a cherished subsection of Kendrick’s discography, even before Pt. 5 took the series to new heights. In the accompanying deep fake video for Pt. 5, Kendrick morphs into a lineup of various Black entertainers, some more controversial than others, as each takes their turn rapping the song’s lyrics. It’s a spectacle that anonymizes his message and gives context to his sweeping critique of the culture we’re all a part of.
7. Bad Habit – Steve Lacy
I’m a big Steve Lacy fan. Bad Habit was my most listened to song, and Lacy himself was my 4th most-listened to artist according to Spotify Wrapped. There was something about the moody music on Gemini Rights that felt entirely novel. Like it was refreshing to hear from the designated everyman. It felt like the punk lower-fi version of Frank Ocean, in a good way. Is it fair to call it Punk R&B? Whatever it is, it sounds like the future of popular music. Bad Habit blew up after going viral on TikTok, and spent a good portion of the year on the top of the charts. The vibe is effortlessly contagious, and who can’t get behind a song reminding them to shoot their shot?
6. Johnny P’s Caddy – Benny The Butcher ft. J. Cole
Griselda Records out of Buffalo, NY is a force. Led by Westside Gunn, the in-your-face raspy-voice iconoclast who put out a 10-part mixtape series titled Hitler Wears Hermes, the Griselda crew’s grimy elegance is an arctic tundra heading South. As Griselda’s stock rises, so does Benny the Butcher’s, who’s patience and persistence are paying off for the 38-year-old. His 2020 album Burden of Proof was produced entirely by Hit-Boy, and moved him closer to mainstream rap with help from the likes of Lil Wayne, Big Sean, and Rick Ross. On his latest album, Tana Talk 4, he teams up with The Alchemist and J. Cole to make the best and most commercially-successful song of his career. Over rumbling drums and sampled vocals, Benny the Butcher and J. Cole command undivided attention through confident boasts and dramatic pacing. This craftsmanship courses through Benny the Butcher’s opening lines: “This ain’t my story ’bout rags to riches, more ’bout how I mastered physics, in the game, I used to train like Rocky, catchin’ chickens.”
5. Aquamarine – Danger Mouse & Black Thought ft. Michael Kiwanuka
Seventeen years separate Danger Mouse’s collaborative rap albums. Back in 2005, he and the late MF Doom combined to form the group DANGERDOOM, marrying rugged raps and bohemian production on The Mouse and The Mask. Flash forward to 2022, and Danger Mouse has united with Black Thought on Cheat Codes. The new partnership glides with the same chemistry as its predecessor, as Black Thought tells stories and shares keen observations, his own rugged raps sounding wiser than ever. The Roots’ frontman continues to earn his real estate on rap’s Mount Rushmore, polishing an already-cemented legacy. On the new album’s standout, Aquamarine, Black Thought delivers the verse of the year, with professorial raps that avoid being dense: “The biology teacher said we used to be amoebas, the preacher said we emerge from the ether, we converged from urethra and struck gold, eureka.” The elder statesman follows this up by making a flex that would sound comical coming from almost anyone else’s mouth: “My words should be studied up at Berklee and Juilliard.” For Black Thought, it’s realistic.
4. Saoko – Rosalía
On Saoko, Rosalía pays homage to the reggaeton legend Daddy Yankee, who announced his retirement at the beginning of the year. She recycles the seductive jingle (“Saoco, papi, Saoco”) from the original to jumpstart both her single and her latest album Motomami. The song is rooted in typical reggaeton drum patterns, but distorted with synths, glitches, and punchy ad-libs that warn us to buckle our helmets and fasten our seatbelts. Rosalía doesn’t want us to get comfortable. In Saoko’s thesis statement, Rosalía cautions us that she’s a fast-moving mami and we should ditch all expectations immediately: “Una mariposa, yo me transformo, Makeup de drag queen, yo me transformo, Lluvia de estrеlla’, yo me transformo… me congradigo, yo me transformo.” Rosalía is in a constant state of transformation, which is beautifully reflected in the wide-ranging musical styles within Motomami and on Saoko itself.
3. Cuff It – Beyoncé
Once Beyoncé unleashed Renaissance, you couldn’t go very far without hearing its songs seeping through the cracks of everyday life. Spin classes, car speakers, Halloween parties, hipster coffee shops, your friend’s house party – the list goes on. Where didn’t you hear Beyoncé’s new album? That would probably be an easier place to start. Break My Soul and its relentless heartbeat was the appropriate anthem to post-pandemic catharsis. It was the album’s biggest hit, and maybe the biggest hit of the year. But Cuff It is the best song on Renaissance. It’s the one that fucks up the night so hard that it tucks the rest of the year’s top dance songs to bed. Cuff It is the song where Beyoncé goes full Beyoncé, and that’s really all that needs to be said.
2. United In Grief – Kendrick Lamar
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is an overwhelming statement from the greatest rapper and hip hop artist of all time, and United In Grief is the electrical cable plugged into Kendrick Lamar’s creative energy source. Kendrick’s album-openers are known for painting pictures of chaos and anarchy (Wesley’s Theory, DNA, Untitled 01), and United In Grief follows suit, welcoming us to his state of mental chaos. There’s an abrupt beat switch at the 1:28 minute mark, where pulsing drums form a track for Kendrick to sprint around, reflecting on his flawed plan to buy and sex his pain away. Therapy, grief, and healing are all at the heart of MMATBS, and Kendrick’s exclamation “I grieve different!” is the earworm that returns to feed off the rest of the entire tracklist and remind us of the album’s greater message. (Check out the full review of MMATBS here).
1. Mercury – Steve Lacy
I wanted to avoid adding more than one song per artist in the top ten, but I failed… twice apparently.
Steve Lacy made my favorite album of the year. Gemini Rights is the album that catapulted Steve Lacy to the top of the charts, and also to the hearts and ears of Gen Z in particular. 10-15 years ago, Steve Lacy’s open diary of queer lyrics and vulnerable musings would probably not have been embraced by the industry’s mainstream mechanisms. But flash forward to a cultural awakening assisted by an evolved social media engine, and the doors have swung wide open for this talented artist to make an entrance. Before his breakout hit Bad Habit went viral on TikTok and spent countless weeks as #1 on Spotify, few people knew the lo-fi guitarist who played with Syd’s band The Internet some years back. Now he’s a pop star, and he’s massively outgrown the venues he’s playing on tour. (Unfortunately, that means tickets have been nearly impossible to snag).
And while the viral song Bad Habit is largely responsible for his mercurial rise to stardom, it’s not even the best on the album. That accolade goes to the album’s lead single Mercury. Bossa nova production by DJ Dahi anchors Mercury, while Lacy grapples with his astrological unraveling: “Mercury running amuck in my mind… Venus in retrograde got me in bed… Gemini scope give me death ‘til I’m dead.” [Genius] At the end of the song, Lacy’s lyrics hint towards something that could explain his exploding popularity, when he sing-raps “you think I’m two-faced? I could name 23.” It’s not hard to see how those feelings would resonate with a hyper-stimulated group of digital natives. 🍑