The songs remained the same last year, but the Billboard 200 tells a different story. Un Verano Sin Ti is the first all-Spanish album to top the magazine’s year-end chart. Its modest sales totals were overcome by gaudy streaming numbers; it racked up 10 billion streams on Spotify alone. That’s a cool 6 billion more than Harry’s House, which broke the record for vinyl sales.
Even though Un Verano Sin Ti overshadowed the album charts for 13 weeks, that didn’t stop plenty of other big name releases from wrestling for the top spot. Some flopped. Others fell short of their own impossibly high bar. But with SOS debuting at No.1 just before the ball drop, a whopping 25 albums topped the Billboard 200. That includes the Encanto soundtrack and a greatest hits compilation from BTS, who might’ve broken up? Either way, the next wave of K-pop is now crashing the charts.
Meanwhile, rock ‘n’ roll is still fighting its way back into the ring. Machine Gun Kelly might be bored with pop-punk. And Mitski sure sounds like she’s tired of the spotlight. But Laurel Hell broke all the way into the Top 5, while Mainstream Sellout lived up to its name (for better or worse). Big Thief unveiled their White Album; black midi crawled further down the rabbit hole; Black Country, New Road lost their leader but still reached a new peak as Alvvays and The Beths took fuzz-soaked and soaring power-pop to new heights. Heck, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers got back on top.
Bratty guitars and synth-pop continued to make a comeback, but hip-hop only tightened its commercial stranglehold. If you count Un Verano Sin Ti, hip-hop accounted for half of this year’s chart-toppers. That doesn’t include Denzel Curry, who was right to clap back at the Grammys. But that didn’t stop esteemed toilet bowl connoisseur DJ Khaled from dropping his fourth straight No.1 album. And while Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is not what any of us were hoping for, Kendrick Lamar finally returned to the biggest first-day in Apple’s history. 2022 was also a good year for Champagne Papi, who can now claim more No.1 albums than anyone except Jay-Z and Paul McCartney. Granted, he owes some credit to Lil Baby and 21 Savage, who fended off Chicago drill, Jersey club and Michigan rap to ensure that hip-hop’s corporate headquarters stays in Atlanta while the city’s biggest moneymaker remains locked behind bars.
It’s not often that the best-selling album of the year is also a consensus hit among critics. The last time that happened was probably a few years ago, when Billie Eilish made her big debut. Before that though, you’d have to go all the way back to 1989. But Un Verano Sin Ti received just as many glowing reviews as it has platinum plaques and rightfully so. At just under 90 minutes, the album is too long. But Bad Bunny used streaming’s bloated album template to make something that’s fun, innovative and gushing with national pride.
That said, my vote for best album of 2022 goes to Renaissance. Like Bad Bunny, Beyoncé celebrated her culture by curating a seamless, joyous and profoundly freaky hour-long DJ mix. But she pulls it off with more finesse, keeping her feet moving without losing sight of the past. Though designed for the dance floor, it belongs in an art gallery as the definitive album from the defining artist of this generation. Plus, Beyoncé gets extra credit for making Right Said Fred sound downright classy.
But no one needs to hear me wax about Beyoncé. If you’re still unconvinced of her greatness, then go ask the Beyhive (assuming Elon hasn’t bankrupted Twitter by the time you read this). And since you are reading this, then you already know how much we enjoyed the latest albums from Amber Marks, Counterparts, Jordana, Koffee, S.G. Goodman, Soraia, Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten, just to name a few.
There were too many albums that I didn’t get around to covering last year. Somehow, I found time for Wilco’s second double album. But 15-year-old me would be let down to hear that I haven’t listened to Radiohead’s newest side project (Update: it’s good!). So for my year-end list, I decided to spotlight some great albums that I overlooked in 2022, along with one that still hasn’t gotten its due.
Action/Adventure – Imposter Syndrome
Pop-punk’s big tent revival is already plenty crowded. 2022 introduced Anxious, Pinkshift and other leaders of the next greatest generation, while welcoming back local legends like The Wonder Years. But Action/Adventure still stand out. For the better part of a decade, these five Chicago scene kids pounded out singles and EPs without reaching the next level. Then two years ago, irony struck when they happened to go viral with a 60-second song about all the barriers they face as a band full of minorities.
Now that they’re signed to the same label as their heroes, Action/Adventure are even more concerned with exposure. That their first full-length cracked the Billboard charts is a dream come true. But Imposter Syndrome is needled by doubts and suspicion over whether they really do belong on the same bill as Hawthorne Heights. Having grown up together on the margins of an overwhelmingly white scene, everyone in the band is still afraid that, at any moment, their dream run will reveal itself to be a waking nightmare. Rest assured, Action/Adventure can put those concerns to bed. Because they’re wrong.
Action/Adventure dabble in hardcore breakdowns and piercing metalcore. But c’mon. With song titles like “Frozone, True King of the North”, they couldn’t be more pop-punk. There’s one scratchy, contemplative palm-muted guitar opening. Otherwise, this album goes hard and fast and loud for 32 minutes straight. The verses are thrashing and visceral. You can definitely mosh to them. But Action/Adventure also write sugar bomb choruses. “Save Yourself” is spring-loaded with whomping riffs, rumbling fills and bouncy, back-and-forth gang vocals. “You’re now listening to an instant classic”. They’re not wrong about that.
SONJA – Loud Arriver
Melissa Moore opens her first album in a decade by fleeing from her captors. Thirty-seven minutes later, her enemies are down on their knees, screaming for mercy. “Pray to your god, ain’t no blessing to be found”. Her screams are bright and blinding as the angel of death.
Some context. Moore used to be the guitarist for Texas black metalists Absu. When she came out as transgender, the band fired her over text, though drummer Grzesiek Czapla did show his support by following her out the door. The two moved to Philadelphia, where they returned to making music as Sonja, a side project they’d been kicking around since 2014 without much traction.
That’s heavy stuff. But Sonja are a heavy band who are out for blood on Loud Arriver. The incendiary opener flickers with murderous synth drones and furious flurries of cymbals that clack like bullet casings. Watch out for “Pink Fog”, where guitars come slashing out at you like Jack the Ripper.
Moore’s lyrics are ghastly, foretelling of shores lined with corpses and dark caves speaking in tongues. But Loud Arriver is a ghoulishly good time. Just try not to giggle during “Moans from the Chapel”. Sonja worship at the altar of Judas Priest, but “Nylon Nights” kicks down your door with all the pomp of Look What the Cat Dragged In. The song’s leather-bound video is not for the faint of heart. But the way Moore teases the sleazy riff like a stripper pole shows you that Sonja are nothing but a good time.
Christian Lee Hutson – Quitters
Times have changed, but if music critics were still looking for the next Dylan, they’d be quick to anoint Christian Lee Hutson.
Like Bob, Hutson grew up by learning to play old folk songs on his guitar. He wasn’t much of a student either. After dropping out of high school, he slummed around LA’s wine bars until 2018, when he met Phoebe Bridgers. Hutson helped write “Garden Song”, “Ketchum, ID” and other sad girl starter pack essentials. In return, she produced his first album for ANTI-, then doubled down by bringing along Conor Oberst for last year’s follow-up.
It’s easy to see what Bridgers and Oberst saw in Hutson. He’s also a big Elliot Smith fan with a wit for gentle, confessional indie-folk. But while one of these songs literally borrows the mellotron from Figure 8, this album ups the ante by fleshing out that fingerpicking aesthetic with melancholic strings, twinkling piano, majestic trumpet warbles and a hypnotic beat that was rustled together with a bag of pennies.
Really though, all Hutson needs is two chords and a microphone. His singing is soft and sleepy, whether he’s retreating into childhood reminisces or trying to outrun his OCD. But Quitters never stops cracking wise. Slacker rocker “State Bird” drifts into Malkmusian absurdity after landing an opening punchline that could get a chuckle out of J Mascis. Even in his lowest moments, Hutson keeps his tongue planted firmly in cheek. “You can’t fire me, ’cause I quit”. The joke’s on us; he’s just getting started.
Maggie Rogers – surrender
Child prodigies shouldn’t be overlooked. Especially Maggie Rogers, who’d already left Pharrel speechless by the time she graduated from NYU.
Rogers debuted near the top of the Billboard 200. But even though she’s hit SNL and the Met Gala, her first album has yet to strike gold. Her second made even less of a dent when it failed to crack the Top 10 before completely vanishing from the charts.
Which is a shame. Rogers can do a lot when given just a little. But she didn’t like being labeled as the all-natural girl with the synth pad. Toss in the cabin fever of living with her parents during the pandemic and you get Surrender, an album that gives in to a higher power, carnal desires and tempting genre experiments. The lead single hooks jittery dance-pop up to overdriven guitar saws and hulked-out industrial drum churns, while one deep track satisfies any lingering curiosity over what The Bravery would’ve sounded like given a major label budget and a good therapist.
Though always stirring, Rogers isn’t known as a powerhouse vocalist. Even her melismatic runs tend to stick just below the beat. It makes me wonder whether she’s been hesitating, still waiting to find her voice. If that was the case, she can stop looking. Her voice runs wild on “Horses”, which breaks from husky Americana into a panting power ballad. “Will you come with me or would you resist?” It’s not too late to saddle up.
billy woods – church
But that anonymity is what makes him so intriguing. The sing-rap zeitgeist is being divided and conquered by hyper regional stylings, but woods isn’t rooted to one particular street corner. Think of him as the voice of history: faceless, all-seeing, a ripple in time who spouts references to James Harden, the AIDS crisis and William Branham all on the same song.
Last year, woods dropped not one but two albums. The first was anointed atop everyone else’s best-of list. But don’t skip Church. Though a surprise release, the album is blessed with familiar features, including two verses and a pair of shimmying choruses from Elucid, woods’ accomplice in Armand Hammer. It was also produced by Messiah Musik, who’s the in-house cratedigger for his Backwoodz label.
Beneath musty sax ruffles, behind guitars that flail like The King of Limbs, in between breakbeat squeaks and soul samples that moan as if locked out of heaven, woods searches for cracks of light. “Classical Music” drifts with the muted twinkle of fresh snow, graced by the notes of an elderly woman’s piano. He keeps his wits about him, too, poking fun at Twitter fingers and riffing on Neil Diamond.
But no matter how he twists his bars, woods is always trapped inside his old haunts, where the weeds are overgrown and dead dogs dangle from lampposts. Over a hobbling snare that’s as close as this album gets to New York City boom bap, “All Jokes Aside” wanders back into woods’ childhood, when he had to boil water just to bathe. Even when the surrounding scenery shifts closer to lowrider G-Funk, he coils around that springiness with a tale of domestic abuse. “There’s no church in the wild. My uncle told me they can’t bury that many bodies”. History will not absolve us. But woods thrives in the dark.
Emmylou Harris – Evangeline
The ‘70s were awfully good to Emmylou Harris. While her friends dug ditches and found Jesus, the former high school valedictorian stole the Devil’s guitarist, waltzed with The Band and topped the country charts with not one but two albums, to go along with four No.1 singles. The only milestone that she didn’t reach? Turning 30 years old.
The dawn of the ‘80s cooled off that hot streak. Granted, Harris’ first single of the decade might’ve toppled Top 40 radio had it not been for a meddlesome label dispute. But her first album was so widely discarded that it’s never been issued on CD.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why everyone glanced past Evangeline. After all, these songs weren’t anything they hadn’t heard before. Harris hadn’t released many originals since her debut and would wait another couple of years before bucking that trend. But instead of a fresh new batch of covers, what she came out with was a quickie assortment of leftovers that had failed to make the cut during previous recordings.
Evangeline has its quirks. Harris already had proven chemistry with Dolly Parton and Linda Rondstadt, but hearing the trio do their very best department store jingle feels weirdly robotic. But the grab bag nature of this album is proof that there’s no song she can’t sing. “How High the Moon” drops smack into her wheelhouse with swooning bluegrass, while the spindly workingman’s ballad is given a feminist twist.
Harris can rock out, too. She and her Hot Band open with a sultry shimmer of desert rock before giving CCR a welcome kick of honky-tonk. What holds the album all together though is, of course, her voice, with all the tender strength of a songbird. “As much as you burn me baby, I should be ashes by now”. After all these years, even her table scraps belong with the cream of the crop.
- Beth Orton – Weather Alive
- Carly Cosgrove – See You in Chemistry
- Let’s Eat Grandma – Two Ribbons
- Miranda Lambert – Palomino
- Vince Staples – Ramona Park Broke My Heart