The best pop and rock albums of 2022
Two EL PAÍS music critics choose their favorite records of the year
It’s not nice to criticize people and things that are no longer around, but in the present context it seems inevitable: musically speaking, 2021 was a disaster. Recalling the blandness of last year’s musical endeavors helps us to appreciate how good 2022 has been.
The dire musical trend that shaped last year’s musical output and which seemed to begin back in 2019, delivered no diva comebacks and no post punk revival – not even a great dance album and no break from traditional black music. In short, there was no Janelle Monáe, no Taylor Swift, no Beyoncé, nor anything approaching a testament to any of them. All we got was a poor version of what we had come to expect. Even New Zealand songwriter Lorde fell short.
2022 is an entirely different affair. For a start, Beyoncé released an album which is probably her best so far. Renaissance is an exercise in power and Beyoncé having fun is better than any other kind of Beyoncé. It was an album that emerged from the pandemic and has only seen the light of day now because when it comes to somebody with her clout, everything takes time. Having said that, we can only hope that after this, nobody else turns out an album that has been made during lockdown; one thing is to be made to wear a mask on public transport two years on and quite another is to be made to dwell on our imprisonment by another album inspired by that period.
The Houston diva’s post-pandemic product could have made album of the year, but it was trumped by violinist and singer/songwriter Sudan Archives’ second album, which came out several months later. The way she combined strains of TLC, J Dilla and Fela Kuti was dazzling. Almost as good was the new offering from Belgian artist Stromae, whose album Multitude once again gave us a cocktail of African sounds, hip hop and French-speaking tradition, combining poetry, realism and trending topics. Also back after a dry period was English urban poet and rapper Kae Tempest whose spare digital sound and lyrics are an absolute triumph.
Another cause for celebration was the return of Spoon – a comeback that has been somewhat more unexpected. The Austin band delivered a brilliant album, which was hailed as a classic, reminding us that, at this point in the 21st century, bands that were great when they started out are now verging on legends. It is more than likely that, 20 years from now, we will think of Big Thief in the same way we think now of Spoon or Wilco, and we will do so thanks to the fact that this year they released an absolutely stellar double album. Big Thief won’t ever be another Wet Leg, but their latest album was a breath of fresh air in the world of indie rock that, despite continuing to produce great bands, knows that it is almost impossible to recapture its heyday that came to an end when Radiohead’s Kid A was released.
Basically, a year in which Bad Bunny and Beyoncé have set the bar and underground sounds range from Soul Glo to the art rock of Yard Act can’t be bad.
Stones Throw / Rough Trade
On her second full-length album, violinist Britney Denise Parks ditches any restraint and throws herself into a mix that includes everything from hip hop to African rhythms, R&B and 90s formula radio pop. After a somewhat uninspired debut, which lacked actual songs and focused too hard on imagery, with the violin as her prop, Parks delivers a fantastic album that allows her to fill the vacuum left by Janelle Monáe, who now seems more interested in pursuing a film career than in nipping at Beyoncé's heels.
This is the greatest artist of the 21st century’s homage to the dance music of the 20th century, and conjures everything from disco balls to the sweaty basements that provided the perfect setting for house. The cover is a tribute to Studio 54, but the album is a far cry from a nostalgic pastiche, thanks to the diva’s ability to surround herself with new non-binary dance icons like Honey Dijon and timeless legends, like Grace Jones. Conceived as a long DJ play, with few transitions between tracks, Renaissance is the most powerful work recorded by Beyoncé to date.
After five years, the Belgian rapper and songwriter Paul van Haver, better known as Stromae, announced his comeback in early 2022. His history includes reaching number one in 19 countries, collaborating with the likes of Lorde and Dua Lipa, yet also suffering a couple of setbacks on his African tours. A break was needed. When asked about his mental health issues during an interview on French TV, he responded by singing L’enfer, the first single from Multitude. The clip went viral. Paul van Haver wasn’t coming back quietly. Multitude is an all-encompassing album in which EDM, Europop, reggaeton and the French chanson feature. It has a circus feel to it, a sense of everything from a lion tamer to an intoxicated tightrope walker. There’s waltz rhythm and an aggressive hip hop base. Few artists manage dexterity as well as this.
Music as Usual
Wet Leg is the closest thing to a critical and popular phenomenon that the much-maligned indie pop world has achieved since Anglo-Saxon rock lost its monopoly on global youth angst. Wet Leg’s Wet Leg is post punk with a twist that includes strains of both the Brit post punk ensemble The Raincoats and mid-1990s Blur on a Central European tour. The album is fun, aggressive, sweet and edgy – a debut album that acts as a reminder that the revolution is not only about dancing suggestively, but also about conjuring an atmosphere of beer sloshing and people in The Slits T-shirts who haven’t showered for a week.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is a double album which has finally emerged from a stormy creative process that almost broke up the band and killed its lead singer, Adrianne Lenker. Given these circumstances, you might expect something that is too long and complacent, excessively introspective, which nobody dared to cut to avoid additional pain. But Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is a delicious catalog of folk and Americana, a sort of Blonde on Blonde for millennials in which no song is too long and which even has a sense of humor.
Black Country New Road
Just a few days before releasing their second album, Ants From Up There, the English band announced that their leader, Isaac Wood, was leaving. Never before has such bad news been followed by news as good as this wonderful album. If they previously produced a wild, disjointed post punk sound for people who scoff at mundane activities, such as studying for an exam, in this album they have morphed into a blend of John Cale, Divine Comedy and Scott Walker for a generation that believed they didn’t like their parents’ musical taste. Now that generation is ready to listen: Black Country New Road just had to explain it to them.
This Irish band debuted three years ago with a wonderful album of edgy punk that turned them into a medium-sized phenomenon within the guitar-heavy indie music world. On this, their third album, they give a Copernican twist to their sound and indulge in a personal revision of the darkest indie playlists of the nineties, with one of the brooding bands of that era, the Whipping Boy, as their main reference. The result is impressive.
After The Book of Traps and Lessons, urban poet and rapper Kae Tempest could have continued to combine her music and literary flair in the same way she did on that Rick-Rubin produced album, which was a little self-conscious. The Line Is a Curve is a totally different matter. Kae mixes the cadences of recitation with classic hip-hop, and the rhythms range from UK garage to electro, creating sounds that are always interesting and sometimes even danceable and hummable. And the words? Well, no one puts words together quite like Kae.
The most Caribbean of Bad Bunny’s albums has turned him into the most listened-to artist on Spotify for the second year in a row. Maybe Un verano sin ti (or, A Summer Without You) doesn’t seem as much of an event as YHLQMDLG, but while YHLQMDLG established him as someone who really matters musically this decade, Un verano sin ti reinforces the message. Recorded in Puerto Rico and with constant nods to Dominican sounds, Bad Bunny divides the album into two parts: one edging closer to electro-pop, reggaeton and almost everything coming out of the Caribbean; the other, an altogether more introspective and political affair.
Matador / Popstock
Between 2002 and 2007, this Austin band was absolutely unstoppable. With a sound halfway between Gang Of Four, David Bowie and Elvis Costello, they established themselves as a safe haven during the second wave of American indie, while avoiding a revivalist vibe. Then they fell apart, first because they wanted to go vintage; then, because they wanted to modernize. Lucifer on the Sofa, their first album in five years, is, surprisingly, one of their best works. It’s a brief, concise and impeccable exercise in the search for cracks through which to stick their heads out and shout that rock is dead. Let’s see if anyone is still listening.
Rosalía skips from vulnerable to invincible with more than a touch of mischief in Motomami. Nine months have passed since its release and still the impression that Rosalía dominates current musical styles and, above all, creates an authentic mood hasn’t worn off. Even songs that seemed inconsequential back in March when it was released, such as Bizcochito, have acquired a seductive aftertaste. Motomami is an album intrinsically of its time. And that could be its only downfall – the fact that in a few years, its appeal will have been eclipsed. But, for now, it’s there to enjoy while we wait and see what the Catalan artist will do next.
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