As the years go on, I find myself interested by how differently I’m using music from one year to the next. In high school, music was purely an emotional soundtrack to all the upheaval that time of your life brings. In college, it was the soundtrack to the thousands and thousands of miles I drove to keep a long distance relationship alive. In the years immediately following college, it was background music as I found my way as a freelance writer. And then later, as I picked up songwriting, I studied the music I loved almost academically, trying to figure out what made it work from lyrical, musical, and production standpoints.
The last few years have brought new utilities for music in my life. In 2020, music was a crutch, something I relied on to get me through hard times. In 2021, it felt like so much of the music I loved was about communicating and amplifying the euphoria of being able to get back to some semblance of a normal life. This year, music was jet fuel. I spent 358 hours running this year and covered 3,131.3 miles, first in preparation for my first marathon, then for a variety of other races and goals. Music was a companion across most of those miles, pushing me forward and giving me the inspiration and the confidence to push harder — to drop the pace another 30 seconds per mile, or to keep going on those 20-mile days when my legs were burning and even my brain felt tired.
I think I’ll always have a special connection to these albums for how they accompanied me on that brand-new journey. There will be other marathons and many more miles to run, but 2022 will always be the year that I pushed myself to do something that even 28-year-old me never would have thought I could do, and the music on this list will always remind me fondly of pushing those limits and discovering that no human being is limited. Here’s to pushing a few more limits in 2023.
1. Gang of Youths – angel in realtime.
For my entire life, I have had a complicated relationship with the concept of fatherhood. My own father left my family when I was young; I have probably seen him on fewer than ten occasions since the mid-2000s. So many of my best friends growing up also had absent fathers, or estranged fathers, or fathers who were fuck-ups. Maybe that’s just what children of divorce do: They find people with the same scars and hold them close because it’s nice not to feel alone in that peculiar ache. Never mind that I had a stepfather in my life who I truly loved, someone who was there for me and who I trusted like he was my real dad. That father was a pillar of my world for more than 25 years. And then he too walked out of my life in an extremely painful fashion.
I bring all of this up because Gang of Youths’ angel in realtime. is an album about complicated relationships with fathers. Frontman Dave Le’aupepe wrote these songs in the wake of his father’s death, but also after learning that his dad had been lying to him for his entire life. Unbeknownst to Le’aupepe, his father had another family – including two other sons.
Part of what makes angel in realtime. remarkable is how it excavates this story – the tale of Le’aupepe meeting the brothers he never knew and bonding with them over shared grief, rage and trauma. Beyond the jaw-dropping nature of the tale itself though, this album is remarkable because of how Le’aupepe gives listeners a front-row seat to an immensely private and painful journey through the stages of grief. How do you grieve someone who betrayed you, who lied to you for your entire life, who was never really the person you thought they were? How do you hold on to the love you had for that person from before you knew what you know now? And on the other hand, how can you possibly hate someone who, for so long, was an immense force of good in your life?
On angel in realtime., Gang of Youths eschew the easy answers. And that’s because, in cases like this – and frankly, in a lot of stories of imperfect parent-child relationships – there are no easy answers. Instead of being just about grief, or just about shock, or just about rage, or just about love, angel in realtime. becomes an album about all those things at once, sometimes simultaneously. The result is a staggering, life-affirming album that does as good a job as any record I’ve ever heard at capturing what it’s like to have complicated relationships with complicated people in a complicated world. In the songs, Le’aupepe finds his way toward forgiveness and grace. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there with the men I called fathers. But it’s comforting to think that I might.
2. Maren Morris – Humble Quest
The biggest headlines around Maren Morris in 2022 had to do with her standing up for trans kids when some of country music’s baddest actors made shitty, ignorant, or downright dangerous comments on the matter. And true to form for a genre industrial complex that has learned nothing since it blackballed the Dixie Chicks in the early 2000s, Maren ended up taking more heat from the dust-up than her adversaries – a list that includes sentient potato Jason Aldean; Aldean’s wife Brittany, hilariously labeled “Insurrection Barbie” by Maren; and craven opportunist RaeLynn. Long story short, don’t be surprised if Maren Morris ends up making a Taylor Swift-style exit from country music sometime soon. If that happens, though, it’ll be Nashville’s loss: Morris’s Humble Quest is the best country album of the year, and it’s not close. While country radio was busy cycling through its 50,000th batch of songs about trucks, jeans, whiskey, and Jesus from its 20,000th batch of mediocre white dudes, Maren compiled an album that does what country music was designed to do in the first place: convey real stories about real people going through real trials and tribulations of the human condition. Morris’s major label debut, 2016’s Hero, remains the pivotal pop-country album of its era, but Humble Quest tops it in terms of pure songwriting craft and sheer pathos. On at least two tracks, Maren writes A-grade country songs about writing country songs – see lead single “Circles Around This Town,” an enormously clever (and catchy) recounting of her quest to “make it” in Nashville; or see “Background Music,” about putting all your truth, all your passion, and all your blood, sweat, and tears into songs that will eventually just be mood-setters for the evening crowd at the local bar. But she also writes movingly about desire (“Nervous”) and motherhood (“Hummingbird”) and female friendship (“Good Friends”), and even still finds space for some laughs – namely on “Tall Guys,” a hilarious song about being over a foot shorter than her husband. Best of all might be “What Would This World Do,” one of the most painful songs about loss I have ever heard. Morris wrote the song after Busbee – her producer, songwriting collaborator, and friend – died of cancer, and it perfectly captures how maddening it is to see the world move on without a person you loved in it. No song from this year brought me to tears more times, and no album I loved from this year had me pressing play more often.
3. Jack Johnson - Meet the Moonlight
I’m as surprised as you are! While I’ve never disliked the music of Jack Johnson, I’ve also never held it in particularly high esteem. My favorite record of his before now was 2005’s In Between Dreams, a polite, breezy collection of coffee shop tunes that rarely transcends its breezy politeness. He was the Etsy shop of pop music, an assembly line of quotable and perfectly nice platitudes about sunshine and living the good life that always felt a little bit like a department store fantasy. I’ll confess that I largely lost track of Jack Johnson after about 2008, figuring that I’d heard everything he had to offer and didn’t really need new versions of that same sound. Meet the Moonlight doesn’t entirely reinvent the wheel: It still sounds like a Jack Johnson album, with the same easy-going, lilting melodies and with Johnson singing in that same relaxed, beachside drawl. But something about it also feels decidedly different. Where Johnson’s songs have been all Instagram-filter sunsets and calendar-photo perfection in the past, you can feel a bit of darkness and nagging doubt creeping in here. “Some nights I can fall for hope, but some I can’t sleep/And sometimes I can forget that it’s falling to pieces,” Johnson sings on the very first verse of the very first track, called “Open Mind.” It’s a disarmingly honest, fraught line coming from an artist who always seemed like the dictionary definition of “carefree.” And on closer “Any Wonder,” it’s “Is it really so hard to believe/That the light might come and go, and the love might never leave?” Maybe it’s because of the pandemic, or because of a fraught social and political landscape, or because Johnson himself is getting older. For whatever reason, though, Meet the Moonlight finds the world’s favorite beach-bum singer-songwriter foregoing his usual postcard platitudes for deeply existential songs about love and life and what it means to be here, now. It doesn’t hurt that Johnson has found an optimal partner in producer Blake Mills, who brings out spectacular little sonic details in the songs without foregoing the easygoing intimacy that always made Jack Johnson records so charming. The title track, for instance, is gorgeously calming – the sonic encapsulation of sitting on a beach on a summer night and gazing up at a moon-filled sky. Even with a great producer, though, the attraction at the end of the day is the songs themselves, and how they capture all those little darts of thought that hit your mind in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.
4. Matt Nathanson – Boston Accent
Look, you could be the nicest person in the world, but if you tell me that you’re “not really a lyrics person,” I am going to hold it against you. Albums like Boston Accent remind me of why I feel that way, because there are at least a dozen lyrics on this record that stop me in my tracks, and for me, there is nothing more thrilling about being a music fan than hearing a lyric for the first time and being absolutely floored by it. Matt Nathanson has always had a knack for that kind of songwriting – for writing devastating little barbs that he somehow sneaks by you like they’re hand grenades getting tossed over your barricades. Boston Accent is packed with those moments of transcendent, gut-punching beauty. Just get a load of how lead single and opening track “German Cars” captures summer romances, coming-of-age malaise, and bitter class resentments in just three minutes and 22 seconds; there’s enough substance in that song for a feature-length film, but the economy of the writing is what sells it. Or how about the title track, where the narrator encounters a former flame at a Christmas church service and then chronicles a whole flood of memory in 17 words: “I could almost feel your hands in my hair and you whisper my name/In a Boston accent.” Picking a favorite track is almost impossible, because every song seems to hold so much of the human experience in its grasp. But if I had to, I think I’d point to “Beginners,” a song about how your boldness and your sense of wonder tend to drift away as you get older. It’s one of those bits of songwriting where you can’t believe someone hasn’t tried the idea yet, because it’s so smart and so universal. Remember when we were “beginners”? As in, remember when we were people who were young and dumb and willing to throw caution to the wind and take chances like we would if we were invincible? As you get older, you recognize your own vulnerabilities and you build walls to avoid danger or hurt, but you lose some of the visceral thrills of life in the process. “You end up killing all the best parts, baby/Trying to protect yourself,” Matt sings in the verse, and it’s one of those lines so good that it makes you want to live your life a little bit differently. There are more of those kind of lines on Boston Accent than any other album this year.
5. Butch Walker – …As Glenn
Butch Walker has been reaching backward in time for influences for as long as I’ve been listening to him, but he’s never made an album that sounded as much like a past era as Glenn. A loose concept album about a singer-songwriter destined never to hit the big time, Glenn carries the sound and feel of the ‘70s so authentically that it’s easy to forget it was made in 2022 by a guy born in 1969. When the album came out in September, Butch made a Spotify playlist of all the songs that inspired it, and that playlist by itself might be worthy of a slot on this list. Carole King; Elton John; Bonnie Raitt; Jackson Browne; Warren Zevon; Don Henley; Billy Joel; Fleetwood Mac; Bob Seger; John Mellencamp. These artists and others dominate the “Glenn’s House of Vibez” playlist, but they also dominate the actual album-length proceedings of Glenn. “Lean into Me” is a dead ringer for Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.” “Holy Water Hangover” sounds like an outtake from Billy Joel’s The Stranger. The radiant keys on “The Negotiator” recall some of the big arena crowdpleasers from Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Hearing a songwriter and performer as talented as Butch in such referential mode for such an outstanding and legendary crop of artists is a joy, but Glenn is also much more than pure imitation. Butch has spent years away from the stage at this point: his last album, 2020’s American Love Story, dropped in the middle of the pandemic, following a near-four-year break from 2016’s Stay Gold. As a result, you can almost hear Butch rediscovering the thrills of rock ‘n’ roll music on these songs – particularly big-chorus barnstormers like “Roll Away (Like a Stone)” and “State-Line Fireworks.” You can certainly hear him reckoning with his place in the music industry, as an artist who will never get enough credit but whose songs still save a few lives along the way anyway. Butch Walker’s songs certainly saved my life – or, at very least, made it a whole hell of a lot more interesting. Add Glenn to the list of albums I can reach for when I need a little pick-me-up.
6. Maggie Rogers – Surrender
As someone who spent the better part of a decade working toward a career as a professional singer, I can’t help but be drawn to records with dynamite vocal performances at their center. No album from 2022 delivered on that front more than Surrender. On her debut, 2019’s stellar Heard It in a Past Life, Maggie Rogers showed off considerable chops as a songwriter, as a chronicler of the foibles of young adulthood, and as someone who could ably flit across a crayon box of different pop music stylings. She also had a striking voice, full of yearning and excitement, but I didn’t necessarily come away from that album thinking of Rogers as one of the top vocalists in pop. After Surrender, I’m not only thinking of her on that list, I’m thinking she may be near the top of it. See “Shatter,” where Maggie wails away with reckless abandon – somewhere between Kate Bush, Florence Welch (who appears on the song), and a no-holds-barred punk rocker. See “Want Want,” where her voice bursts with desire, or “Begging for Rain,” where it aches with 180-proof regret. See “Anywhere with You,” where she rides a visceral crescendo until she’s sing-shouting the best use of profanity in a song this year: “You tell me you want everything, you want it fast/But all I’ve ever wanted was to make something fucking last.” These aren’t the kind of pristine, perfect vocals we’re used to hearing on pop records these days. There are little imperfections to the performances: moments where Rogers misses a note or two, moments where you can hear her running out of breath or gasping for it, moments where she’s yelling or crying or growling more than actually singing. But the resulting songs are so raw, so striking, and so full of passion that I can’t imagine hearing them any other way. Surrender works because the girl singing the songs commits herself to them so thoroughly that you, as the listener, have no choice but to commit as well.
7. Kelsea Ballerini – Subject to Change
“Seasons do it/And it happens when the night goes day.” So starts Kelsea Ballerini’s fourth album – and her best record yet – with a song about the unstoppable inertia of change. It’s not such a far cry from the similar song-of-transition that Taylor Swift used to kick off her fourth album in 2012 – the one that proclaimed “I never saw you coming, and I’ll never be the same.” In a lot of ways, Subject to Change is Ballerini’s Red, a kaleidoscopic collision of pop and country that also doubles as a “Guess I’m an adult now” revelation. Ballerini is a little bit older than Swift was when Red came out – 28 when this record came out, versus Taylor’s 23. She’s also already been married and divorced, has navigated her own Reputation-like public backlash cycle on Twitter, and saw the entire promotional campaign around her third album, 2020’s kelsea, evaporate in the midst of a global pandemic. All those topics inform Subject to Change, which like Red oscillates between wrenching emotional acuity (the closing trio of “Doin’ My Best,” “Marilyn,” and “What I Have,” insightful songs about the costs of fame and trying to keep up with everyone’s expectations), riotously fun country rave-ups (the Shania Twain dead ringer that is “I Can’t Help Myself,” or a super-powered team-up with Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson on “You’re Drunk, Go Home”), and tracks that show off her razor-sharp pop instincts (“Muscle Memory,” “Weather,” and “Heartfirst,” all massive hookfests). Ballerini has always had that sonic wanderlust on her records, and has been dinged by quite a few trad-country critics in the past for her unwillingness to make a “real country” record. But just like the dynamism of Red kept that record fresh and allowed it to sketch out a million different emotional details in brilliant technicolor, Subject to Change balances all its various attributes: country and pop; happy and sad; fairytale and reality; an urge to sprint forward and a longing to look back. It’s the album that I knew Kelsea was capable of making the first time I heard her debut album – 2015’s fittingly titled The First Time. I’m glad it’s finally here.
8. Death Cab for Cutie – Asphalt Meadows
One thing I didn’t have on my 2022 bingo card: Death Cab for Cutie making an album that recaptured the glory of their 2000s run. The band spent the 2010s making safe, solidly enjoyable albums that nevertheless lacked the ability their early material had to burrow under your skin. I quite like 2018’s Thank You for Today, a beautifully tuneful set of autumnal pop songs, but I can’t deny that something about that album lacks the weight and punch of Death Cab classics like Transatlanticism or Plans. Whatever element that was missing four years ago, though, is mysteriously back in play on Asphalt Meadows. Perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle is dynamics. For years, Death Cab were better than just about any rock band out there at fitting crescendo and diminuendo into their music. The sweet, sad quietness of parts of their songs was balanced by the big, loud, cathartic parts, and the way those pieces fit together was exhilarating. Think the long, slow build of “Transatlanticism,” or the big explosion of sound at the climax of “Tiny Vessels,” or the way “Bixby Canyon Bridge” snowballs from a thoughtful, spacey intro into a pummeling full-band outro. Moments like that are all over the Death Cab albums of the 2000s, and are virtually impossible to find on the Death Cab records of the 2010s. Even the best songs from the last few albums sometimes felt locked in stasis. But the boys are back to using the full quiet-loud spectrum on Asphalt Meadows, and it’s a welcome return. Opener “I Don’t Know How I Survive” is the perfect example, a song that starts gently but then gets so loud so suddenly on the chorus that it forces you to sit up straight and pay attention. Something similar happens in “Foxglove Through the Clearcut,” which balances rich, thought-provoking spoken-word verses with a gleaming arena rock chorus refrain, complete with some classic Big Ass Death Cab guitars. Add some of the richest lyrical work Ben Gibbard has mustered in quiet some time – I’m particularly fond of “Here to Forever” and “Wheat Like Waves,” a pair of achingly sincere songs about the steady march of time and the fleeting nature of life – and you end up with a Death Cab for Cutie album that evokes a whole lot of what made this band special for so many people. It’s 2022’s greatest comeback album.
9. Anxious - Little Green House
Some albums make you feel like a teenager again. For some people, that sensation – of being reminded of their high school years – can be mortifying or downright traumatizing. For me, it’s a fond place to spend some time. I formed such a strong bond with the music I listened to in my teens that any new band or album that reminds me of those years is almost guaranteed to win my affection. That’s absolutely the case with Little Green House, a dynamite emo record from Connecticut newcomers Anxious. With shades of Bleed American-era Jimmy Eat World and the first Dangerous Summer EP, Little Green House hooked me immediately. This band has such a knack for melody and such a gift for pathos that hearing their songs puts me right back in my high school hallways or in the driver’s seat of my first car, yearning for a girl or getting angsty over the creeping approach of graduation and “the future.” The chorus melody of “In April”; the coming-of-age tale of the aptly-titled “Growing Up Song”; the line “All that we share will come and go, we are meant to leave” in “Afternoon”; the slow-burn repetition of album closer “You When You’re Gone”: Repeatedly, Little Green House serves up moments like these that remind me of how music used to make me feel. These songs are new, but the emotions the dredge up – the moments, the memories, the mindset I had when I was 15 and listening to albums on my iPod in my childhood bedroom – it’s almost like I’m hearing “23” for the first time again, or “Konstantine,” or “Several Ways to Die Trying,” or “The Permanent Rain” – songs that made me feel like my heart was going to burst because it was feeling so much. I guess you could call it nostalgia, but a lot of records make me feel nostalgic; not a lot of records feel this transportive, this authentic to the music I loved when I was young, this much like time travel. For 33 minutes, Little Green House reminds me of that amazing Tom Petty quote: “Music is probably the one real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.” On their first album, Anxious make magic. I can’t wait to hear them make more of it in the future.
10. Zach Bryan – American Heartbreak
Remember that VH1 show Best Week Ever? Well, Zach Bryan had the best year ever. At the outset of 2022 he was a promising DIY troubadour with a growing word-of-mouth following. He ends the year with more than a billion streams on Spotify, a major label debut that New York Times’ top pop music critic called the best album of the year, and a wildly passionate, super engaged online audience that will likely stick with him through thick and thin. So what that Bryan inexplicably missed out on a nomination in the Grammy’s Best New Artist category? I’d wager that, in 10 years, we’ll all look back and know that no new breakthrough artist from this year shook things up quite as much as Zach Bryan. The biggest reason, obviously, is volume: American Heartbreak is a triple album with a mighty 34-song tracklist, and it wasn’t even the only music Bryan released this year. He also dropped a nine-song follow-up EP – called Summertime Songs – and a few standalone singles, enough to bring his 2022 output to approximately 50 original tunes. I was cynical about that volume at first – as in, “Who is this virtual unknown artist thinking he deserves so much of my time?” Surely, he was taking a quantity over quality approach. But American Heartbreak kept luring me back. I rarely listened to it start-to-finish in a single go. I rarely even listened to the songs in order. But on hazy summer mornings or blizzardy winter days alike, I fell in love with just dropping the album on shuffle and letting it play – usually when I laced up my shoes and went out for a run. More than any other album from 2022, American Heartbreak immersed me. I got lost in it over and over again, falling in love with a different song every time. In the summertime, it was dusky jams like “The Outskirts” or “Late July” or “Younger Years” that caught my fancy. In the winter, it was sad folk tunes like “Billy Stay” or “She’s Alright” that punched me in the heart. I couldn’t always remember the titles of the songs later, but I could remember the words and the melodies and the way they made me feel. Slowly, I came to realize that the quantity of songs was an asset – and not just because Zach Bryan gave his fans more music in 2022 than many of my favorite artists have given me in the past 15 years combined. No, just like Springsteen always said he wanted to do with The River, Bryan decided to shoot his shot with American Heartbreak and made a record as big as life itself. Friendships and drunken revelry, small towns and pretty girls, fast cars and country songs, heartache and heartbreak, death and every stage of grief: they’re all here in these songs, along with so much more. They amount to one of the most striking years for a new artist I can remember. No wonder I can’t wait to hear what Bryan has up his sleeve next.
11. Ingrid Andress - Good Person
Ingrid Andress got a good amount of attention for her debut album, 2020’s Ladylike, which scored her a big attention-grabbing hit (“More Hearts Than Mine”) and a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. Her second album, Good Person, got largely ignored – a huge shame, because it’s easily one of the triumphs of the year in the world of country/country-pop/country-adjacent/whatever-you-want-to-call-it music. On “More Hearts Than Mine,” Andress demanded attention because of her lovely, conversational singing and her razor-sharp pen. She hones both of those elements on Good Person, an album packed with some of the best vocal work and some of the smartest songwriting I heard in 2022. For the former, check out “No Choice,” a tidal wave of a breakup song that crests with an explosively emotional bridge; Andress has gone on record saying that she was in tears recording the take that made the album. For the latter, listen to “Blue,” a song that twists Nashville’s conventional approach of associated the titular color with heartbreak and instead makes it the call sign for a gorgeous, dusky love song. Similarly clever songwriting concepts crop up all over Good Person, with Andress repeatedly using listeners’ assumptions to build cool, moving twists into her songs. “Seeing Someone Else,” for instance, seems like it would be a song about infidelity, but is in fact about a relationship that breaks down because one partner is only in love with who the other person used to be. And “Yearbook,” rather than being the high school nostalgia song you’d guess it would be from the title, is actually a wrenching ballad about the narrator’s parents and how they’ve fallen out of love with one another. A lot of female singer-songwriters in Nashville have been draped with the “next Taylor Swift” mantle over the years, but in terms of sheer songwriting chops, Good Person is proof that there’s no one more fit to wear that banner than Ingrid Andress.
12. Ken Yates – Cerulean
I ranked Ken Yates’ Quiet Talkers as my 10th favorite album of 2020, but I doubt there’s an album from the decade so far that I’ve revisited more times. Yates, an acoustic singer-songwriter from Canada, makes a type of gorgeous and calming (but still emotionally engaging) folk music that tends to fit perfectly into a wide variety of settings. From work time to dinner parties and from road trips to late-night reflections, Yates and his songs never feel out of place, which is why Quiet Talkers kept landing on my turntable or getting dialed up on iTunes – even as other 2020 albums that I liked a little more at the time became more occasional listens. I have a feeling something similar might happen with Cerulean, an album that takes everything I loved about Quiet Talkers and just gives me more of it. It’s possible to enjoy these songs as lovely background music; I have certainly done that many times since first hearing the album. Yates sings beautiful melodies in a hushed and measured tone that feels inherently welcoming – a little bit like a warm blanket. But just as on Quiet Talkers, the songs here are also packed with unexpected little earworm melodies and rich, thoughtful lyricism. For proof of the former, listen to something like “The Future Is Dead,” a darkly catchy little pop song that recalls early Death Cab for Cutie. For proof of the latter, check the lead single “The Big One,” an apocalyptic love song about how the end of the world might be just the thing we all need to recognize the impossible beauty in our everyday relationships – and in all the little mundanities those relationships encompass.
13. Taylor Swift – Midnights
Midnights is the worst album Taylor Swift has made in 16 years. How’s that for a controversial stance? And to kick off a blurb of praise, no less? After Taylor spent 2020 mining completely new-for-her territory, Midnights represents the first retreat of her illustrious career. Perhaps it’s the product of a re-record project that has had the famed singer-songwriter looking back instead of forward for the past two years. Whatever the reason, Midnights feels strangely like territory we’ve traveled with Taylor Swift before – territory that was, in general, more satisfying the first time. It’s a testament to Taylor’s stratospheric talent, then, that I can write those words and still rank this album as one of my 15 favorites of the year. Even in backward-looking and self-referential modes, Taylor’s knack for glued-to-your brain earworms (“Anti-Hero,” “Bejeweled,” “Karma”) and casually devastating storytelling (the origin-story confessional of “You’re On Your Own Kid,” or the let-my-defenses-drop intimacy of “Sweet Nothing”) still yields an album that bleeds and resonates – and demands repeat plays and obsessive analysis. How much better is “Midnight Rain,” for instance, when you consider that it’s basically Taylor flipping the script on “Tim McGraw,” her debut single? Back then, she was the one getting left behind in a small town; now, she’s candidly admitting “I broke his heart ‘cause he was nice” about the small-town boy who wasn’t going to hold her back from her big dreams. Midnights is at its best when it’s doing things like that – things that reckon with the very mythology of “Taylor Swift” and even take some pleasure in defacing it. See “Mastermind,” which owns up to the (by now) obvious revelation that modern pop’s consummate storyteller isn’t just chronicling what happens, but putting it all in motion with her “cryptic and Machiavellian” ways. Or see “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” a sequel to 2010’s “Dear John” that is, somehow, even more unsparing than its already-savage predecessor. I might wish Midnights pushed the envelope a little more, or that it had a few songs that could hang with Taylor’s all-time greats. I might even wish that it sounded a little bit more like the kind of records I reach for late, late at night (see Coldplay’s Ghost Stories) than like just another “Taylor Swift makes synth pop” album. But Midnights is ultimately still a pretty damn good version of what it is – even if “what it is” is a relatively minor-seeming entry in an increasingly exceptional body of work.
14. The 1975 – Being Funny in a Foreign Language
The 1975 made the jump to being a zeitgeist-baiting, voice-of-their-generation band so quickly that we never really got to witness the full extent of their pop gifts. Imagine if, after Parachutes, Coldplay had jumped straight to making ultra-ambitious, shapeshifting albums like Viva la Vida rather than making A Rush of Blood to the Head and X&Y and packing them with a bevy of the best stadium rock hooks and cigarette-lighter ballads of a generation. I always felt a little like The 1975 took that route, blasting off toward full self-important antics on I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it and its follow-up A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. I liked those albums a lot, for many reasons. I liked how game this band seemed to be in trying on different sonic costumes, and I liked the fact that they were attempting to make zeitgeisty rock music in an era where “zeitgeist” and “rock music” were largely divorced. But a part of me also longed for the lower-stakes charms of the band’s self-titled 2013 debut, an album that thrived because its ‘80s-style pop songs and mall-emo anthems were largely just about girls and sex and heartbreak. On Being Funny in a Foreign Language, after going a few centimeters too far up their own assholes with 2020’s insufferable Notes on a Conditional Form, The 1975 finally make their Rush of Blood to the Head. Matty Healy probably still spends more time than I’d like singing about the internet and cancel culture, his two favorite subject). But when you can deliver songs like “About You,” the best piece of U2 cosplay to come along yet in this young decade; or “Looking for Somebody (To Love),” a high-octane pop song right in The 1975’s classic wheelhouse; or “Wintering,” a track worthy of joining the Christmas song canon, a few lyrical facepalms are easy to forgive. And given that Being Funny in a Foreign Language ultimately clocks in at a fleet 44 minutes, with an “all killer no filler” approach never before seen or heard from this band before, there’s a lot to love and very little to forgive anyway.
15. Dawes - The Misadventures of Doomscroller
For four tracks, The Misadventures of Doomscroller might just be the best album Dawes have ever made. Those four tracks amount to 30 minutes of music and showcase everything Dawes are good at as a band. Taylor Goldsmith’s rich, existential lyricism? Check. Shapeshifting song structures that keep you engaged even across lengthy track runtimes? Check. Dynamite guitar solos? Let’s just say that, if I made a list of my top five guitar songs from this year, three of them probably come from this opening quartet. Dawes have always been journeymen on their records, swapping producers out and exploring exciting sonic destinations along the way. Early echoes of Jackson Browne and Laurel Canyon folk gave way to jammier tendencies on 2015’s All Your Favorite Bands. 2016’s We’re All Gonna Die and 2018’s Passwords were more studio-oriented records, with producers Blake Mills and Jonathan Wilson bringing Dawes more in line with modern rock trailblazers like Alabama Shakes and The War on Drugs. And on 2020’s Good Luck with Whatever, a team-up with Americana producer Dave Cobb had Goldsmith writing his most introspective, lyrically rich songs ever – almost like he was taking a cue from one of Cobb’s most famous collaborators, Mr. Jason Isbell. This time around, Dawes reunite with Wilson for the fourth time and explore another new set of influences: the jazz-and-soft-rock fusion of Steely Dan, the proggy theatrics of Pink Floyd, and the unpredictable improvisation of the jam band scene. The result is their most musically thrilling work yet: see “Ghost in the Machine,” which showcases the effortlessness of the band’s rhythm section (drummer Griffin Goldsmith and bassist Wylie Gelber), the dynamite jazz-club chops of keyboardist Lee Pardini, and Taylor Goldsmith’s near-unrivalled skill as a guitarist and frontman. Dawes have always been a tight musical outfit, but the band-in-the-room feel of The Misadventures of Doomscroller makes me think they might just be the best rock band of their generation.
16. Mandy Moore - In Real Life
A guy I knew from my music school days died of cancer this year, at the age of 30. His name was Marshall. He left behind a wife who I also knew back in music school, where they’d met as classmates. I saw both of them in August 2021 at a mutual friend’s wedding and had a blast catching up with them and getting silly on the dancefloor together. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d ever see Marshall, or talk to him, or experience his warm sense of humor. When I saw a Facebook post in May saying he’d passed away, it caught me completely off guard. It’s the second or third time that a classmate of mine from high school or college has died of cancer, and the news always blindsides me. I think, in my head, I still believe myself and my contemporaries are “too young” to be dying at all – let alone of cancer. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest child of three, or because my memory is so sharp that I still think of high school as “just a few years ago,” but I think I tend to believe I’m still too young for a lot of things. The idea of ever being a father and raising a child is certainly one of those things, and it’s something that I’ve come to reckon with more and more with each passing year, as more and more friends from my childhood start families. Mandy Moore’s In Real Life is an album about just such a milestone. She told Jimmy Fallon that she wrote “this whole record during the pandemic and when I was pregnant,” and that it ended up being an album “filled with songs about impending parenthood and thinking of my own childhood, and trying to make sense of what was happening in the world.” I don’t have kids and don’t currently have any interest in having kids, but the way Moore writes about parenthood on this album feels more universal than just speaking to the experience of expecting your first child. When I read Marshall had died, I was listening to this album, and specifically to the final track, called “Every Light.” That song is very clearly about waiting patiently for an unborn baby to arrive. But on that day, I heard it as something more spiritual, like something a late husband or wife might utter from the afterlife as they wait for the day when their partner rejoins them. “Till the moment you’re ready/I’ll keep the champagne on ice/You’ll know the house when you get here/’Cause I’ll leave on every light.” And that’s the amazing thing about music, isn’t it? That a song can be written about one thing, but can speak some broader emotional truth that resonates with someone in a completely different experience. In Real Life is an album about parenthood, but it’s also an album about the breakneck speed with which life flies by, and about how important it is to cherish the people in your life while they’re here. “Where do the days go?” Moore sings in the sublime “Four Moons.” “When did the clock start ticking, picking up tempo?” What questions are more universal than those?
17. Anaïs Mitchell – Anaïs Mitchell
Leave it to the mastermind behind the Tony-award-winning musical Hadestown to craft an album that is arguably both the year’s most gorgeous piece of music and one of its most thoughtful. On her self-titled eighth studio album, Anaïs Mitchell makes music that captures little moments and sparks of memory in such vivid flashes that they feel like they’re happening to you. On “Brooklyn Bridge,” she puts you in the back of a New York taxicab, buzzed on alcohol and the night, sitting alongside someone you’ve had a crush on for weeks or months or maybe even years, and tilting tipsily toward the moment where the two of you finally cross some unspoken line. On “Backroads,” she spins small-town vignettes that start out beautiful (the brightness of the stars in the sky way out where there’s no light pollution to dilute them, or teenagers living it up in the woods during summers of reckless abandon) but turn dark as the song moves forward (“Different cop on the same night/Stopped a kid about a tail light/Somebody thought it didn’t look right/Might as well have said he didn’t look white”). On “Little Big Girl,” she turns the camera on the way teenagers often race to grow up – and specifically on how a young girl’s innocence can be stolen so quickly by the systemic cogs of a patriarchal society. Mitchell makes songs that sound simple on the surface but contain a novel’s worth of nuance in their wordy, stream-of-consciousness-style verses. Again, leave it to a Tony winner to be one of the best scene-setting singer-songwriters in the game. On her self-titled album, Anaïs Mitchell may just be winning that game altogether.
18. John Fullbright – The Liar
No single listening experience from 2022 floored me more than hearing the first three songs on John Fullbright’s The Liar for the first time. Fullbright made one of the songwriter hall of fame records of the 2010s with 2014’s Songs, but then he vanished – at least as a recording artist. Great albums from artists you love always feel like gifts, but The Liar felt particularly gift-like to me given that it was Fullbright’s first release in more than eight years. He was the kind of artist who I’d simply stopped putting on “most anticipated” lists at the outset of each year, because I stopped expecting him to ever release another album. In situations like that, when the new album does finally come along, there’s always the risk that you’ll overhype it to yourself. When artists are gone away, it’s easy to built up their legacy in your mind – and to imagine their purely hypothetical next album as the best thing you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing. I certainly went into The Liar with lofty expectations, and for those first three songs, it exceeded every single one of them. Opener “Bearden 1645” had this freewheeling bar-band magic to it, moving from a piano section to a full-band section to a jet-fueled key change in a way that felt electric and thrilling and thoroughly unpredictable. Lead single “Paranoid Heart” had a perfect tuneful economy about it, reminiscent of Jason Isbell’s “24 Frames.” And “Stars” was the best of all – a piano-and-voice confessional about god and love and existentialism that Fullbright sang with such raw emotion that it put tears in my eyes and had me gasping. The rest of The Liar isn’t nearly as transcendent as those three songs, but Fullbright’s songwriting remains rich and vibrant – whether he’s in wry, humorous, John Prine homage mode (“Social Skills”) or topsy-turvy, shit-kicking “Tom Waits describes the underbelly of society” mode (“Poster Child”). Of all the musical joys of 2022, few rank higher on my list than the relief of knowing Fullbright is back in the game.
19. Pool Kids – Pool Kids
It’s probably sacrilegious to admit around these parts, but I’ve never quite “gotten” Paramore. The reassessments and canon-shifting of the past few years have positioned Hayley Williams and her band at the very pinnacle of the emo/pop-punk universe – hence their headlining slot at the When We Were Young festival, alongside My Chemical Romance and above bands like Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World that felt bigger and more important in the moment. But beyond RIOT!, which I genuinely adore, I have trouble getting onboard with Paramore’s albums as a whole. What a surprise to me, then, that I would fall head over heels in love with Pool Kids – a band that, by all accounts, are the second coming of Paramore. Lead singer Christine Goodwyne sounds a whole hell of a lot like Williams, and many of the band’s songs are dead-ringers for mid-2000s emo-pop standards like “Hallelujah” or “Misery Business” or “The Only Exception.” But something about this band struck a chord with me in a way that their biggest influence never did. One of my issues with a lot of that 2000s era of emo – including both Paramore and MCR – is how emotionally exhausting it was. I can enjoy those bands thoroughly on a song-by-song basis, but their albums have often felt fatiguing for me because of how they remain at an emotional fever pitch throughout (often with an extremely claustrophobic production style). Pool Kids solves both those problems. While the album sounds a lot like RIOT! on the surface, the structure, pacing, and spirit of it reminds me more of another emo-pop classic: Bleed American. Just like that album, this one hits a beautiful balance between bruising emo aggression (“Conscious Uncoupling”), straight-ahead pop songs (“Talk Too Much”), and calm-in-the-storm ballads (“Comes In Waves”). And just like Bleed American, Pool Kids has this lush, wide-open production style that allows atmosphere and soundscape to bloom (see “Swallow,” a song that is as much about the atmosphere as it is about the lyrics and the melody). Along with Anxious, Caracara, Camp Trash, Tree River, and a handful of other bands, Pool Kids seem to be ushering us back toward the sound and feel of emo/pop-punk in the early 2000s, and I am absolutely here for that trend.
20. Dashboard Confessional – All the Truth That I Can Tell
All The Truth That I Can Tell has all the hallmarks of a classic “rise from the ashes” LP. Dashboard Confessional mastermind Chris Carrabba wrote and recorded the album in the wake of a 2020 motorcycle crash that left him with numerous traumatic injuries and a lengthy road to recovery. The record also took form in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, 20 years on from when the Dashboard Confessional project had gotten started, and as Carrabba entered his late 40s. Finally, the record is a return to form – a stripped-down confessional (pun intended) acoustic singer-songwriter record produced by the same guy who lent the golden touch to 2000’s Swiss Army Romance and 2001’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. When lead single “Here’s to Moving On” arrived last fall, it sounded like Carrabba was willing himself toward the ultimate comeback album. Not only did the song carry the sound and magic of early Dashboard, but it also had a beautiful message of resilience that seemed so fitting given where Carrabba had been. “Here’s to fighting less/Here’s to living more/Here’s to feeling alive again/Here’s to picking yourself off the floor,” he sings in the chorus; it’s the best song he’s written in years. But All the Truth That I Can Tell is more muted and melancholy than “Here’s to Moving On” maybe hinted at. There are certainly songs that track a similar triumphant, resilient arc: See “The Better of Me,” a big, bruising beauty that sounds like an outtake from 2009’s underrated Alter the Ending. Mostly, though, this record finds Carrabba in his most vulnerable and reflective mode yet, writing songs about aging, mortality, family, and what makes life worth living. At first, I wanted the songs to burst a bit more – to deliver those huge moments of catharsis that have always been in rich supply on Dashboard albums. All the Truth That I Can Tell isn’t that kind of album, but if you give it some time and some patience, you might just find the biggest gut punches Carrabba has ever written, hiding in soft, unassuming ballads. In particular, I can’t get “Young” out of my brain, if only for how it juxtaposes who Carrabba was when we met him – and who many of us Dashboard fans were then, too – with who he and we are now. “I was young/And you were young/And we had young ideas/And they were brilliant,” he sings in the first verse. Later, it’s “Now I am not young/I am not foolish in the way that I once was.” Hearing our greatest-ever poet of teen angst sing those words hurts a little bit, because it’s a reminder that those of us who grew up with his music aren’t so young anymore either. Luckily, though, we get to have our emo stalwarts aging gracefully with us, and writing poignantly about the next chapter of life.
21. Bruce Springsteen – Only the Strong Survive
Bruce Springsteen is a lot of things: a rock ‘n’ roll icon, a famously empathetic songwriter, a fierce bandleader and live performer, a ripping guitar player, a wonderful storyteller. For all the superlatives applied to him, though, Springsteen has rarely been described throughout his 50-year career as a great singer. I personally love Bruce’s voice – particularly on early records where he absolutely made up for what he lacked in technical ability with vocal performances that coursed with energy and with the unbridled abandon of youth. Born to Run in particularly is a fabulously well-sung rock album, with Bruce channeling Roy Orbison and opera in equal measure. But it’s also absolutely true that Bruce has leaned less on his voice and more on his other gifts throughout his career, particularly on latter-day albums. See 2019’s Western Stars, a total songwriting showcase, or 2020’s Letter to You, which spotlights the kinetic force of the E Street Band first and foremost. But on Only the Strong Survive, Bruce’s brand-new collection of soul covers, he lets his voice be the star for maybe the first time ever. Given the choice, you can bet I’d pick a new Bruce-penned collection over a covers album, and it’s hard not to feel like there was a big missed opportunity here in not bringing in the E Street Band to record the arrangements. But it’s also just a goddamn blast to hear Bruce wailing away on songs like “Do I Love You” or “Don’t Play That Song,” or to hear him slip so seamlessly into the role of interpreter on deeply-felt covers of the title track or “Soul Days” or “Night Shift.” The best covers records, to me, are the ones that give the artists a chance to have fun and share music they love with their fans. Only the Strong Survive does both.
22. MUNA - MUNA
Loaded with queer anthems, titanic choruses, and gleaming synth pop songs, MUNA’s self-titled third album feels like a coming-out party in a lot of ways. While MUNA have been around for a few years and a few albums now, they rightfully got a lot of attention this time around for songs like “What I Want,” “Runner’s High,” and especially the Phoebe Bridgers collab “Silk Chiffon.” Their star seems destined to rise even further in the New Year as they join Taylor Swift for a string of dates on her Eras Tour. That’s fitting, given that a lot of MUNA feels like it was built off the rubric set by Swift. The way the band tucks their most personal confessional into the track five slot, with “Kind of Girl.” The way “Loose Garment” uses an article of clothing to illustrate something about a relationship. The way the bridge on “Shooting Star” seems to suddenly dial the emotions of the song up to 11. A few of the songs here, for me, land with thuds, hence the lower ranking – I’m not too taken with the Mitski co-write on “No Idea,” for instance – but the fact that MUNA serve up at least half a dozen of the best pop songs of the year on this record makes the few skips forgivable. At their best, MUNA can convey utter euphoria (“Silk Chiffon,” “Solid”) or bitter heartbreak (“Home by Now,” “Kind of Girl”) and make both sound like the catchiest things in the world.
23. Spoon – Lucifer on the Sofa
Every year, I make a 40-song summer playlist, and every year, if your song lands on that playlist, it is guaranteed to be one of my most-played songs of the year. That’s due in part to the way the summer mix morphs and grows throughout the season, serving a variety of purposes along the way. In April or May, it starts as a form of springtime anticipation for the season to come. In June, July, and August, it’s a soundtrack to full-on summer glory. And in September and October, it’s what I reach for on those unseasonably warm days where it feels like summer again, however fleetingly. This year, not only did Spoon land on the playlist, but they led it off. “Wild,” a loose, ramshackle pop-rock song co-written by Jack Antonoff and channeling the spirit of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, caught my ear all the way back in January as an essential song for the “Summer 2022” playlist, and when the time came to make that mix, it felt like the only fitting opener. It’s one of my favorite songs of the year, so it’s fitting that it comes from my favorite album Spoon have made in at least 15 years. After going down the electronic rabbit hole on 2018’s Hot Thoughts, Spoon got back to the business of making straight-ahead, swaggering rock albums on Lucifer on the Sofa. But in between rippers like “The Devil & Mister Jones” or “My Babe” or “On the Radio,” they also still find space for thoughtful love songs like “Satellite,” or for smoky, foreboding creepers like the title track. Even at their most straightforward, here’s a band that will still find ways to surprise you.
24. Pale Waves - Unwanted
On their previous album, last year’s Who Am I?, it was pretty clear that Manchester’s Pale Waves wanted to make their version of Let Go, Avril Lavigne’s iconic debut from 2002. From the album cover to the angsty songs, Pale Waves showed off an impressive knack for slipping into all the visual and sonic signifiers of early-2000s emo-tinged teen pop. Coming back with a follow-up just one year later, Pale Waves faced some sizable challenges. First, the simple one: making something that lived up to the considerable charms of Who Am I? Then, the trickier hurdles: competing against Avril herself, who made her own return to her old sound with February’s Love Sux; and avoiding the long shadow of Let Go, which landed back in the cultural conversation this year as it celebrated its 20th anniversary. Clearly, Pale Waves didn’t back down from those hurdles, as Unwanted is even bigger and better than its predecessor. The melodies are stickier, the production is even more of a dead ringer for early-2000s radio, and singer Heather Baron-Gracie sounds even more like the bratty-but-vulnerable version of Avril we met on “Complicated.” Pale Waves pile so many hooks on top of one another on songs like “Unwanted,” “Reasons to Live,” “Act My Age,” and “So Sick (Of Missing You)” that I repeatedly found myself with bits and pieces of different songs in my head: a chorus melody here, a guitar line there, a bridge section there. I’ve said before that, for me, most mainstream modern pop artists are slacking hard when it comes to writing memorable melodies. It seems like the easiest solution in the world to get Pale Waves on the radio to teach everyone else how it’s done.
25. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Unlimited Love
I was ready to turn my nose up at Unlimited Love. Once upon a time, I considered myself a big Chili Peppers fan, but those days were long ago. Or so I thought. Even the prospect of John Frusciante coming back into the fold after a decade and a half away didn’t really move the needle for me. But a funny thing happened when Unlimited Love arrived this past spring: I kept coming back to it. It wasn’t even that there were specific songs or moments or hooks that grabbed me the first time through. It was more the sound, the vibe, the feel. Listening to these songs as winter turned to spring reminded me of the spring of 2005, when my brother first made me listen to By the Way and Californication and I fell in love with their weird alchemical energy. Tracks like “Here Ever After” and “It’s Only Natural” and “White Braids of Pillow Chair” reignited an old fondness for this band and their distinctive sound that I didn’t know was still there. I’m a nostalgic listener by default, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised that the nostalgia was there for this band. But this was a unique case of nostalgia: A band that meant a whole lot to me from 14-16, who hadn’t made a record that sounded like that version of themselves since I was right in the middle of that age range. The result was that Unlimited Love gave me a feeling closer to reliving my formative teen years than any record in recent memory, from good times spent with my brother to road trips with my friends in our first cars. It’s entirely possible that the magic I found with this record is fleeting, and that I won’t feel the same way about it when I look back in a year or two. For now, though, Unlimited Love is a blast from a past that felt more innocent and carefree. We could all use that kind of nostalgia trip once in a while – especially in times like these.
26. Avril Lavigne - Love Sux
Love Sux should have been Avril Lavigne’s re-coronation as a generation-defining pop star. After Olivia Rodrigo exploded in 2021 – largely, let’s face it, by cribbing from the bratty-and-angsty-but-also-insightful teen pop model that Lavigne set in the early 2000s – it seemed like the one-time Canadian pop princess was bounce for another rendezvous with the charts. It didn’t quite work out that way. Love Sux, Lavigne’s quote-unquote return to her pop-punk(ish) roots, didn’t convert on the charts or on the radio like many pop prognosticators thought it would. Fortunately, the album is still a riot, crammed to the brim with irresistible hooks and a whole lot of attitude. Lavigne’s best post-heyday songs are still hiding on her overlooked 2010s albums – see hits like “Wish You Were Here” from 2011’s Goodbye Lullaby, or should-have-been hits like “17” and “Bitchin’ Summer” from the 2013 self-titled record – but Love Sux still manages to recapture a lot of the magic of the halcyon days of early 2000s teen pop across its 12 tracks. See “Kiss Me Like the World Is Ending,” a big, heart-beating anthem that sounds like it belongs in the climactic scene of the Lindsay Lohan version of Freaky Friday (that’s a compliment) or “Déjà vu,” which dials the pop-punk guitars up to 11 in a way that will make you feel like you just walked into a Hot Topic circa 2005. Sure, the album is a pure nostalgia trip, and I’d probably get tired of Avril’s juvenile theatrics if she doesn’t try to move beyond them on future releases. But as far as “getting your groove back” albums go, Love Sux is a goddamn blast. Sometimes, it’s ok to act like you’re 16 again.
27. Lainey Wilson – Bell Bottom Country
Rewind the clock a few years, and this list was absolutely loaded with country records. From 2015 to 2018 in particular, country music dominated my listening to such a degree that it legitimately reshaped the way my ears worked. Enjoying modern pop music became harder, for instance, because it was such a far cry from where I was training my ears to be most comfortable. But I fell out of love with the genre in the midst of COVID-19 and the Trump presidency, as a long list of artists I thought I enjoyed showed their true colors in often despicable ways, and as Nashville and country radio continued doing their darndest to pretend that the mediocre white men they were elevating were more worthy of the spotlight than one of the most impressive slates of active female talent of any genre. One of the few female artists to break through doing that period was Lainey Wilson, who has been hustling for years with little-heard releases. Lainey’s song “Breaking Your Heart” from 2018 was a summer night staple for me that year, and always felt to me like something the radio would play in a more perfect world. Lo and behold, country radio started playing Lainey on her very next album, 2021’s Sayin’ What I’m Thinking, and her rise culminated this past fall when she won CMA Awards for Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Female Vocalist of the Year. Lainey’s follow-up to her mainstream breakthrough, Bell Bottom Country, arrived just in time to capitalize on all that success, but despite being a long-time fan of hers, I initially turned my nose up at it. I was frustrated with country music for letting idiots like Morgan Wallen and Jason Aldean keep riding the success train despite many infractions, and everything from Lainey’s new album title, to the cover, to the first single — called “Heart Like a Truck” — made it seem like she was selling out to the big machine. When I actually listened to it, though, Bell Bottom Country knocked my socks off. Lainey still sounds like her old charismatic, shit-kicking, big-voiced self, only now with the extra confidence (and extra budget) that comes with big success. Songs like “Atta Girl,” “Hold My Halo,” and “This One’s Gonna Cost Me” skate on huge hooks, clever production choices (courtesy of Jay Joyce), and a metric ton of attitude. And “Heart Like a Truck,” despite my assumption that it would be a lukewarm concession to country radio’s most annoying tropes, is actually a deeply-felt metaphor about heartbreak and resilience —- with one of the biggest vocal “money notes” of any song this year. Mainstream country may be a cesspool in a lot of ways, but it’s nice to be reminded from time to time that there’s still a lot of talent there.
28. Sigrid - How to Let Go
Interstellar pop songs: That’s how I described Sigrid’s How to Let Go the first time I heard it. On leadoff single and album opener “It Gets Dark,” Sigrid sings about defying gravity, flying at the speed of light, beholding the universe from afar, and experiencing darkness so pure that only the stars can punch holes in it. It’s the perfect table-setter for a record that never once seems to come down from the stratosphere. Effortlessly blending threads of bubblegum pop, disco, arena rock, dreamy folk, and even emo, How to Let Go is high-octane and thrilling even in ballad mode. Written in the midst of the pandemic, the album seems to capture both the stultifying loneliness of early lockdown and the visceral thrill of being back in the club, the venue, the bar, the crowded space. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the production is occasionally showier than it needs to be. You can almost hear Sigrid rethinking and rejiggering songs like “Mirror” and “A Driver Saved My Life” to ramp up the Kylie Minogue-esque early 2000s disco-pop vibes after Dua Lipa found so much success with those sonic touchpoints on 2020’s Future Nostalgia. But the melodies are so good (see “Thank Me Later,” with a chorus so jubilant it turns a breakup into a celebration) and the vocals are so outstanding (hearing Sigrid wail away on the bridge of “Bad Life” has to be one of my favorite musical moments of the year) that the songs win the day regardless.
29. The Midnight – Heroes
Heroes dropped on September 9, right in that little no-man’s land where it doesn’t really feel like summer anymore but the weather doesn’t quite justify calling it fall. I’ve always loved that time of year, when the kids have gone back to school and the tourists have cleared out but the sunshine is still warm and the days are still long and the beaches are still welcoming. Heroes is a perfect album for that time of year. In northern Michigan, September 9 was a gorgeous day where my wife and I ditched work early to go have a drink on the beach beach and soak up one last idyllic summer evening. These songs suited the occasion perfectly: the wistful, dusky glow of “Golden Gate,” the YOLO-style hashtag hook of “Heartbeat,” the teen movie romanticism of “Loved by You.” So much of this album hooks into the latter mood perfectly, aping bits and pieces of ‘80s sound that recall everything from Jackson Browne to Bon Jovi. And since a lot of those ‘80s teen movies always evoked the wild spirit of summertime anyway, Heroes ended up becoming my own little cinematic coda to a perfect summer. Best of all in that regard is is “Brooklyn. Friday. Love.”, perhaps the most exuberant pop song I heard in 2022. It’s one of those songs that captures all the propulsion and possibility that you feel when the sun is out, and the weekend is coming on, and life feels temporarily free of all the worries and stressors that break you down. “A little heaven you can stumble into/We got your invite tonight” sings the first pre-chorus; after two years where just about every song felt linked in some way to pandemic melancholy, it was good to hear a song like this one, that really, truly feels just like heaven.
30. Tree River - Time Being
I tend to be pretty sure about my favorite album picks at the end of any given year, but it always takes me 6-12 months to lock into what my favorite songs were. Every “songs of the year” playlist I’ve ever tried to make in the moment has inevitably missed the mark in some way or another, and I can never quite figure out why. With that said, I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that any version of my “favorite songs of 2022” list, now or in the future, is always going to include Tree River’s “Prospect Park.” For most of its runtime, Time Being – the debut full-length from this Brooklyn-based emo band – is extremely promising, if not transcendent. Songs like “Journey Proud” and “Laughing With” have killer, sunny melodies and lots of charm, but they don’t necessarily hammer their way into my brain the way the songs on the Anxious album do, for instance. My first impression of these songs, and of Tree River overall, was that this was a band I could see delivering a transcendent second or third album a few years down the line, and that I should keep tabs on them until that happened. But I kept coming back to Time Being because, on the final track, Tree River stop hinting at future transcendence and just deliver transcendence. Remember when emo albums used to save the biggest, most emotionally cathartic songs you’d ever heard for the closing track slot? Jimmy Eat World were famous for that. So were Dashboard Confessional, and Motion City Soundtrack, and Anberlin, and a bunch of others. I remember, in my early days on AbsolutePunk.net, how fans of these bands would spend time ranking not the albums, but the closing tracks – so significant was the impact and legacy of those songs. With “Prospect Park,” it sounds like Tree River spent some time studying those classic closers and figuring out what made them work – particularly “23” from Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, which seems like the closest spiritual ancestor. The result is a song that bursts and blooms with all the butterflies of emo’s greatest grand finales, and that reminds me of how it used to feel waiting on baited breath to hear a new album’s big finish. At this exact moment in time, I’m inclined to call it the best song of 2022.