Compiling my picks for my yearend best-of lists has become a time-honored tradition that I begin each January, adding and removing from it all year long until I reach something coherent and presentable. And it’s always quite the journey as another year of pop music pulls us in directions we don’t always foresee. But even when it feels like time stands still, as it has felt these last few years in particular, music is always an interesting way to mark the passage of time. We may all in fact die before we find our happy endings as Demi Lovato suggests, but at least there’s some good sounds to blast into our headphones for the time being, right? Encompassing everything from indie to dance to Christina Perri finally giving us (me) a new studio album, these are my picks for the 10 best albums of 2022.
Foxes, The Kick
“Sometimes you need to break down,” proclaims dance-pop singer Foxes on the title track to her long-awaited third studio album, The Kick, described best as a post-lockdown record. Although a multitude of pop artists have delved into the archives of disco influences for any number of releases over the last two years, there’s one thing they were missing: the kick. Celebrating the power of embracing our emotions through the catharsis of the dancefloor, The Kick reminds us that while life can be hard, it’s also short, and there’s no use dwelling on problems large and small, especially those out of our control. This theme is equally felt across “Potential,” “Two Kinds of Silence,” and “Forgive Yourself,” with the latter serving up a much-needed dish of healing that most have us have needed after the excessive amounts of trauma over the last few years. We might have been dancing metaphorically in quarantine thanks to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, Kylie Minogue’s Disco, or Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, but The Kick feels different, like a reward at a further point in the storm. As Foxes puts it, life is easier when it’s happening to somebody else. But on this album, she wants it to happen to us, and have it be fabulous: “Listen to the ghost but don’t feed it.”
Best songs: “The Kick,” “Potential,” “Dance Magic,” “Two Kinds of Silence,” and “Forgive Yourself”
LÉON’s best quality has always been her ability to be vulnerable within the lines of her songs, and with each new release she manages to deepen both her artistry and sense of self by pushing the boundaries of what it means to be vulnerable. Although the theme of being lost in love runs consistently throughout her discography, it’s only on Circles where the singer starts to sound truly at home in her own skin, ugly emotions and all, finally accepting of pain that she had to heal on her own. Unlike her previous releases, Circles also touches on themes outside of love, such as the aforementioned comfort in her own skin on “Soaked” and acceptance of growing older while still feeling the same on “Wishful Thinking.” But the album also explores fantasies and dreams, making Circles feel like one long, compelling diary entry that does what this kind of personal music does best: make the listener feel less alone in their own feelings, even if they are worlds apart. Where its predecessor Apart was a way of processing her emotions, Circles is composed of the ugly truths, the ones we often must gather the courage to express to ourselves lest they envelope us whole.
Best songs: “Dancer,” “Wishful Thinking,” “Soaked,” “Moonlight,” “Circles,” “Wildest Dreams,” and “The Beach”
Hatchie, Giving the World Away
Preoccupied with alt-pop sensibilities, indie pop singer Hatchie’s second LP allows for a concrete listening experience scarcely found in the artist’s discography up until this point, especially as she learns to trust her gut and listen to the rhythm within. The album doesn’t necessarily feel like a pandemic record, but the reflections its lyrics explore were most certainly influenced by the periods of isolation that the last few years have brought. Keeping the synths from her first album Keepsake, Hatchie now embraces an image reminiscent of Sigrid or Sky Ferreira. Needless to say, the record simply goes places its predecessor did not and helps to establish the singer as a voice to watch on the alt/indie pop scene. Although her voice and meaning can sometimes get lost in the dreamlike state she continues to emulate, Giving the World Away comes through the most when the singer lets her anxieties take the lead. Where an ambitious production like this one would cause the deeper messages of other indie artists to get lost in the mix, Hatchie pulls it off by inviting us deeper and deeper into her world with each track, no matter how sleepy or domineering.
Best songs: “Lights On,” “This Enchanted,” “The Rhythm,” “Quicksand,” and “Giving the World Away”
Harry Styles, Harry’s House
Harry Styles’ existing fanbase needed no introduction when he launched a solo career, but his trajectory into a sound that appeals to both teen and adult contemporary demographic places him among few other modern pop artists, safe for perhaps Stevie Nicks, Shania Twain, or Adele. Harry’s House is composed of comforting numbing pop and needs no justification in an anxious age such as our own, but for Styles, his propensity for eclectic influences remains front and center on a folk and funk-inspired record. But there are moments where he drops the so-called façade, getting intimate with the listener in a way he hasn’t before. Against the backdrop of an acoustic guitar, he sings and pleads with a young woman to escape her unloving family on “Matilda,” whose namesake easily lends itself to the Road Dahl character of the same name. Elsewhere, he employs a random and loose style of songwriting to form poetic glimpses into life on “Cinema” and “Satellite,” and “Late Night Talking” serves as the perfect second single for an album that would have otherwise been cast aside as more Gen Z bedroom pop if it hadn’t been made by a wide talent such as Harry Styles.
Best songs: “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” “Late Night Talking,” “As It Was,” “Little Freak,” “Matilda,” “Cinema,” and “Satellite”
While the group’s first two LPs were overloaded with down-tempo, anguished tracks about the perils of same-sex love (often referred to as “trauma bangers” in pop music fandom), the eponymous MUNA retains the sentiment that it is in fact hard to be queer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be happy in the meantime. Combining intensely emotional and often melodramatic lyrics over pulsating beats that bring the experiences of queer women to the forefront, MUNA knows how to take the harsh facts of life—in this case, the oppression and marginalization of queer people—and turn them into power pop anthems to dance the tears away. While the LGBTQ+ community has a long list of pop music allies who don’t necessarily identify with it, it’s refreshing when groups like MUNA—whose members identify as both queer and non-binary—release, for lack of a better term, some of the gayest music this year. MUNA is their most cohesive and strongest record to date, and while the group was initially hesitant over being openly queer in fear of being pigeonholed as a queer pop trio, they’ve since come to learn the ways in which their queerness makes them stand out.
Best songs: “Silk Chiffon,” “What I Want,” “Home By Now,” “Kind of Girl,” “Anything But Me,” and “Loose Garment”
Christina Perri, A Lighter Shade of Blue
Christina Perri’s first album in 8 years is a body of work that encapsulates Perri’s artistry in a way that reflects her journey in both life and motherhood, while also standing alone as a compelling reflection on grief. Where 2014’s Head or Heart experimented more with pop sensibilities of a mid-2010s caliber, A Lighter Shade of Blue takes influence from a refined palette of folk-rock and jazz. This time around, Perri’s lyrics reflect the fact that it’s been quite a while since her last official studio effort, and refreshingly, she doesn’t seem to care. “I’m not afraid of loneliness,” she declares. “I’m older now, it’s colder out.” Perri has also always been a musician who excels at duets, and the Ben Rector collaboration “Back in Time” is no exception. But if anything, Perri’s new album takes its largest inspiration from the notion of home being not necessarily just a place but also a feeling. Across “Hurt,” “Home,” “Mothers,” and the penultimate “Time of Our Lives,” the singer who once reminded us that she bleeds when she falls down now sounds like someone who knows the gratitude that accompanies finally feeling at home in your own skin.
Best songs: “Surrender,” “Evergone,” “Back in Time,” “Blue,” “Fighter,” “Tiny Victories,” and “Roses in the Rain”
Demi Lovato, Holy Fvck
Regardless of which stage of sobriety Demi Lovato was in during which recording process, it’s more than clear that Holy Fvck was the album they needed to make, part of a process of grief, mourning, and healing. Billed as a highly anticipated return to their pop-rock roots, the record is in fact an edgy and emotive hard rock album that is a refined and sophisticated collection of songs. Although Lovato’s fanbase has long yearned for a return to “Rockvato,” their affectionate nickname for their Disney pop-rock days, Holy Fvck is far from that. Instead, it’s the emo-punk persona that the singer has spent most of their life building, and the one they needed to release in order to heal from trauma and anger. These emotions culminate most on tracks like “Eat Me” and “29,” the latter of which dealing with the inappropriate circumstances surrounding one of their long-term public relationships. If anything, Holy Fvck proves that maybe it was Lovato’s pop albums that were the fluff, and this is the substance—pun very much intended—that they’ve been looking for.
Best songs: “Skin of My Teeth,” “Substance,” “Eat Me,” “Holy Fvck,” “29,” “Happy Ending,” “Dead Friends,” and “4 Ever 4 Me”
Rina Sawayama, Hold the Girl
Rina Sawayama has described her journey in creating her second album as “reparenting” herself, a process of unlearning all the ways we tend to be taught how to fit in growing up. But once we reach a certain age, the last thing a queer person wants to do is blend in. It doesn’t have to be loud, but in the singer’s case, she likes broadcasting it that way. While her first LP introduced us to one of the most commanding new voices in 2020s pop, it left little to the imagination where practicality was concerned. Hold the Girl, however, is in fact a coming-of-age narrative branded in the form of an alt-pop album, which may have been the smartest move for steering clear of a sophomore slump. Combining an affinity for the Y2K pop she grew up consuming with a refusal to water herself down for anybody, Sawayama also exposes the hypocrisies she faced growing up during her process of self-reclamation. On the surface, the record showed early signs of being the latest dance-pop thrill. Underneath, Hold the Girl is a raw and compelling depiction of a queer woman coming to terms with herself and the world around her.
Best songs: “Hold the Girl,” “This Hell,” “Catch Me in the Air,” “Hurricanes,” “Send My Love to John,” “Phantom,” and “To Be Alive”
Betty Who, BIG!
Four albums in and Betty Who is still one of the most underrated names and voices in pop, and I kind of like it that way. On her first two albums released by RCA, aside from a handful of songs, she sounded fairly manufactured and forgettable. But since she’s released her third and fourth albums with independent labels, the singer has really come into her own as a performer and as someone who just wants to make unabashed, unapologetic pop music. Pop that draws from the synths of the ‘80s and ‘90s and makes us gays just surrender to the cheesiness of it all. The title track of BIG! in particular has resonated deeply with queer listeners, myself included, as someone who’s always been physically big and wanted to make myself smaller. But this album is about letting those traumas go with some good dance-pop that makes us simultaneously embrace and forget them. As Will Truman once put it, “Oh, who am I kidding? I’m gay. I can worry while I’m dancing.”
Best songs: “Big,” “Weekend,” “Blow Out My Candle,” “I Can Be Your Man,” “She Can Dance,” “The Hard Way,” and “Grownups Grow Apart”
Carly Rae Jepsen, The Loneliest Time
With her latest LP The Loneliest Time, a title undoubtedly inspired by periods of pandemic isolation, Carly Rae Jepsen’s wide range of diverse influences is still on display, but she’s the most mature and refined that she has ever sounded. Away from her family during the pandemic, Jepsen turned to songwriting to pass the time and started producing some of her most personal work. Kept in what she called a “cave of secrets” of songs she thought weren’t going to land, this would be the creative direction that would set the album’s pace. The Loneliest Time stands out from its predecessors not only because of its depth, but its distinct lack of overtly bubblegum-pop offerings in order to gage some mainstream attention. This time around, however, Jepsen would rather devote time to promoting a disco collaboration with Rufus Wainwright than pander to the heteronormative pop music market that comprises people who still think she peaked with “Call Me Maybe.” Addressing grief, therapy, and toxicity in her latest work, The Loneliest Time solidifies Jepsen as the queer hero she was born to be, one who champions that being lonely doesn’t necessarily have to mean being alone.
Best songs: “Surrender My Heart,” “Talking to Yourself,” “Far Away,” “Bad Thing Twice,” “Go Find Yourself or Whatever,” and “The Loneliest Time”
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