Spandex, soul-searching and transgressive sexuality: The best albums of 2022, ranked


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 also struggling with a hangover of pandemic introspection (Mitski, Rina Sawayama, Beyonce again: u ok huns?). Its lockdown listening appeared to have exploded its horizons; industrial rock, experimental electronics and a leftfield sonic mindset were wholeheartedly embraced by the mainstream, making ear-widening, genre-fluid pop records virtually the norm.

Alternative acts, meanwhile, pivoted away from the ghetto. 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. There was oversharing and tubthumping aplenty in 2022, but largely in the spirit of musical renaissance and tentative celebration. And here are the records most worth celebrating.

20. Lizzo – Special

Continuing to carbonate the global mood, Lizzo flute-funks it up throughout this fabulous motivational disco record. 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. A deeply personal proclamation of an album then, but also a call for a culture war ceasefire. MB

16. Rina Sawayama – Hold the Girl

All-encompassing: Rina Sawayama (Satellite 414)
All-encompassing: Rina Sawayama (Satellite 414)

Few records of 2022 justified critical comparisons to Lady Gaga, AC/DC, Paramore, 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. More introspective than her 2020 debut Sawayama, Hold 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. The title was a supportive embrace for her younger self, but it was clear nothing was going to hold the girl back. MB

15. Phoenix – Alpha Zulu

Rammed with edgy, elastic beats, restless melodies and quirky, stream-of-conscious philosophy, Alpha Zulu saw the French hipsters channelling Talking Heads at their finest. This album was recorded inside the Louvre during the pandemic, and Thomas Mars drew eclectic inspiration from the strange mix of artefacts. 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 wrapped songs of self-forgiveness, heartbreak and insomnia in gentle melodic drones, industrial dream pop, dark dance beats and bright orchestral disco. Tonight, it transpired, Mitski would be alt-pop’s lugubrious Lorde. MB

13. Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You

A rather cumbersome title for such an easy-going album. But the darlings of American indie-folk polished their craft to mellow, organic perfection on this collection of beautiful, heartfelt songs. 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, lithe and melodic, Lucifer on the Sofa worked blues, gospel, retro rock and country into wonderfully crisp and angular shapes, while singer Britt Daniel oversaw matters with the louche confidence of a Julian Casablancas who held it together. The devil still had the best tunes and now, it appeared, the remote as well. 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). The melodies are more sophisticated, thanks to songwriting assistance from jazz whizz Jacob Collier and elegant splashes of keyboard from Dion Wardle. Throughout, he’s looking for a love that’s “wholesome as collard greens”. HB

10. Weyes Blood – And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow

“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.

Like a 21st-century Karen Carpenter, her rich, velvety vocals allow her to inject swooningly romantic melodies with a soothing seam of deep sorrow and strange 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. While writing these swooningly romantic, vintage country-esque songs, the singer came out as gay, fell in love and lost both her parents. 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 yawns and stretches like a cat on a record which offers solace through the sorrow. HB

7. Taylor Swift – Midnights

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

The first album to occupy all top 10 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart found Swift returning to cryptic confessional pop, after the folky fictions of her two pandemic releases. 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

In Yard Act, the sprechgesang revival found 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: Charli XCX (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)

Defensively huddled in London during the pandemic, the Dublin post-punk quintet created a compelling cocktail of surly grit and romantic yearning for their third album. It finds frontman Grian Chatten is on ferocious lyrical form, snarling in triumph and growling 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.)
Long-awaited return Lamar plays Glastonbury (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Five years after the release of his triple-platinum-selling, Pulitzer prize-winning album, DAMN, the Californian rapper returned with a sprawling, ambitious, sometimes uncomfortable but often tender investigation into fatherhood (his children are on the cover), race, culture wars, sexual abuse, queerness, addiction, materialism and the general state of things. “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, conflicted and 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 suggested a proud comeback for the empress of self-worth. Yet this first of a trilogy of as-yet-undefined projects was a continuation record of sorts; more dancefloor-friendly than Lemonade but still ensconced 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 serves up a dazzlingly diverse and experimental platter of Latin sounds on her triumphant and provocative third album featuring production by Pharrell Williams and James Blake and vocal turns from The Weeknd and Tokischa. The sexy confrontations of her old flamenco stamp-beats morph into aggressive drum sounds as her skirt-swishing pop slams together reggaeton, bachata, salsa, hip-hop, cyberpunk, sizzling samples and glitchy balladeering. Singing almost entirely in Spanish, her powerful voice can channel pure devotion to her God or the spiciest, grittiest physical desire. “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