From Beyoncé and Bladee to Ethel Cain and Malibu, we look back on our favourite albums of the year
2022 is the year that music thrived again after years of lockdown. With live gigs and festivals making a full return to the world, many artists dropped long-awaited albums that served as soundtracks for what has been a crazy year. In the mainstream, superstars like Beyoncé, Rosalía and Kendrick Lamar returned with records that were worth the wait, Alex G and Jockstrap delivered career bests, and newcomers Ethel Cain and Two Shell left a lasting impression with their stellar debuts. Here are our 20 best albums of the year.
20. STORMZY, THIS IS WHAT I MEAN
After dropping “Mel Made Me Do It” back in September, Stormzy blessed us with his eagerly anticipated album This Is What I Mean in November this year. Described as “an intimate and sincere love letter to music”, it’s a melting pot of genres that features the likes of Sampha and Jacob Collier. Above all, the album is personal, vulnerable, raw, with lyrics that refer to his newly-rekindled relationship with Maya Jama (“And I had your heart, that's the maddest part”) as well as his old feud with Wiley (“I can’t war with no broken man”).
The award-winning artist put it best himself in a letter he penned to fans to coincide with the album’s release: “I feel like I overshare, which makes me feel naked at times.” And it’s exactly this nakedness which makes Stormzy’s music – and This Is What I Mean specifically – so enchanting. (Serena Smith)
19. THAIBOY DIGITAL, BACK 2 LIFE
Back to life, back to reality, back to being a full-grown adult publically listening to Drain Gang. As things became a bit less socially distance-focused this year, Thaiboy Digital’s latest album Back 2 Life, where the rapper mourns his past life in Sweden after reluctantly moving back to Thailand due to visa complications, has unfortunately become the commuting soundtrack for sad adults having to drag themselves back properly into the office after getting used to working from home. It’s not really the same thing, but at least this way we can daydream about what life would be like if Thaiboy really was Mr CEO. (Hatti Rex)
18. FKA TWIGS, CAPRISONGS
Until now, FKA twigs’ projects have been concise, no more than ten tracks long. So when Twigs gifted us Caprisongs, a sprawling mixtape of seventeen songs, with features ranging from Jorja Smith to Rema, Pa Salieu and Daniel Caesar, it was clear change was afoot. ‘Papi Bones’ sees twigs and Shygirl ready for carni on a dancehall inflected banger, while the bratty, half-sung chorus of ‘Oh My Love’ is a rambunctious, lively, flex. Lead single ‘Tears In the Club (feat. The Weeknd)’ includes the year’s most moreish hook in “I wanna get you out of my hips, my thighs/My hair, my eyes, my late-night cries”, however Abel casually rhyming “There’s no escaping me” with “let it out like therapy” makes for one of his more terrifying couplets. But across this record, and its visual landscape shot by Aidan Zamiri, Twigs comes into her own: adventurous, often funny, and always hopeful. After the gut wrenching despair of 2019’s Magdalene, Caprisongs arrival is truly a tonic. (Elliot Hoste)
17. TWO SHELL, ICONS
Who are Two Shell? It’s an irresistible mystery. The UK dance duo have spent the last couple of years bouncing anonymously around Europe’s most prestigious decks – their faces obscured by scarves and demon masks or squashed behind pairs of creamy nylon tights. Their cartoonish, pulse-raising sets are scattered with unexpected shards of Justin Timberlake, Sugababes and Alicia Keys, as well as some uncanny TikTok-style narration. Are they piss-taking trolls “sending up” contemporary DJ culture? A rotating motley crew of imposters? A glitchy, early 00s internet virus made flesh?
Although not providing many answers, their summer-released EP, Icons, at least shows that they are not a novelty. Over five tracks, the pair immerse us in their warped, post-post-internet vision of UK bass music – a euphoric mix of stuttering synths, hiccuping chipmunk vocals, and heart-racing syncopation. As you listen, there’s an urgent, unshakeable feeling that they’re building up to something – something big, bold and era-defining – and we can’t wait to see what comes next. (Dominique Sisley)
16. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD, ANTS FROM UP THERE
Hailing from Cambridgeshire, Black Country, New Road burst onto the scene back in 2019 with their debut album For the First Time. But it wasn’t until this year with the release of their brilliant sophomore album Ants From Up There that the band was launched into the indie rock stratosphere. Embracing the flute and violin as much as their Slint-inspired guitar riffs, and witty, sentimental and referential lyrics, the album firmly marked itself as one of the more unusual and heart-wrenching break-up albums of the year. Four days before the release of Ants From Up There, lead singer Isaac Wood announced his departure from the band, suggesting perhaps his writing references him breaking up with the band also. He leaves in his trail a truly brilliant album, one that maintains a supreme level of artistry with peak emotional payoff. (Louis Merrion)
15. YEULE, GLITCH PRINCESS
“My name is Nat Cmiel” begins yeule on the first track of her second album, Glitch Princess. “I am 22 years old. I like music, dancing, ballet”. From its opening note, yeule lays out the theme of her album: a burgeoning identity in flux. This becomes apparent over the course of the record. She’s bleakly honest on “Too Dead Inside” (“I can only get so close/ To looking like how I want to be”), and almost too relatable on ‘Friendly Machine’ (“I like to think I’m doing just fine/I like to search my symptoms online”). Listening to Glitch Princess feels like what it would be to inhabit someone else's brain – not just listening to their thoughts, but to physically be inside someone’s brain, to see all those glittering synapses and raw, shuddering nerves up close. In this way, yeule delivers a record that lives up to its glitched-out name. (Elliot Hoste)
14. MARINA HERLOP, PRIPYAT
Marina Herlop’s third album, Pripyat, taps into musical textures and melodies that feel timeless. They could exist just as easily in ancient times before humans walked the Earth – or, even further back, at the glittering birth of the universe – as in a distant future where humans have left our home planet deserted, like the Ukrainian city that lends the album its name. For those unfamiliar with its history, Pripyat was abandoned in 1986 as a result of the Chernobyl disaster; now, vegetation has overtaken the empty city and wild animals roam the streets. Any parallel between Pripyat and the disaster, or current events in Ukraine, was a “total coincidence” however, as Herlop told Dazed earlier this year: “I usually choose words based on how they sound – and I think the sonority of this word is very beautiful.” That being said, Herlop’s vocal contortions and quivering orchestration, on tracks such as “Abans Abans” or “Miu”, would make a perfect soundtrack for new growth in a post-human landscape. While reaching for something timeless, the Catalan musician has grasped the essence of our fragile times. (Thom Waite)
13. OLIVER SIM, HIDEOUS BASTARD
“Have I made you proud?,” Oliver Sim asks on “Fruit”, a song that recalls the emotional isolation and sexual longing that collects while being in the closet. It’s the penultimate missive on Hideous Bastard – Sim’s first solo album independent of The xx – which is scattered with frank and unvarnished lyricism like “I know I’m destructive / And all my friends are like this / Haven’t left the house in days,” as he sings on “Saccharine”. But it’s also stylish and brooding, his gloomy vocals layered with preternatural howls, harmonised synths, and Jimmy Somerville’s sub-nuclear falsetto. The whole thing compounds the horror and ecstasy in unpacking a lifetime’s worth of shame: in the days before the record’s release, Sim shared a statement revealing he has been living with HIV since 17. “I see this, the whole process of exorcising these things, as embracing my little monster – the hideous – in the bid of feeling less hideous,” he said. (Daniel Rodgers)
12. MALIBU, PALACES OF PITY
Providing an unbearably beautiful soundtrack for the cold months ahead, listening to Malibu’s second EP Palaces of Pity is like drifting through the ocean and getting lost in the eternal tides. Named after Daniel Schmidt and Gabriel Abrantes’s 2011 film, the French producer’s sophomore album features five ethereal tracks that ebb and flow with quiet intensity, while lush strings and endless reverb that suggest a vastness that can’t ever be reached. Malibu has described the record as a spiritual sequel to 2019’s One Life, which was inspired by the loss of a friendship. While still tapping into these universally felt emotions, Palaces of Pity sounds like memories being pulled to the surface only to blur out of recognition, eventually drifting towards the nine-minute closer (aptly named after the ancient Greek epic poem “Iliad”), before eventually fading into nothingness. (Günseli Yalcinkaya)
11. RAINY MILLER, DESQUAMATION (FIRE, BURN. NOBODY)
A familiar face in the North West scene alongside friends and frequent collaborators Blackhaine and Space Afrika, Rainy Miller is an artist’s artist, working alongside his peers to nurture homegrown talent on his Fixed Abode imprint. The Preston-born musician is an arresting force during live shows and will crawl and contort his body into uncomfortable shapes, banging his head against the decks like an altar as the crowd hangs onto his every move. This was particularly evident during his latest tour for Desquamation (Fire, Burn. Nobody), Miller’s second full-length release. Across ten tracks, Miller moves between various broken states, skewing traditional electronic and rap tropes with cold, mechanical production that stops and starts like broken gears. Miller’s voice is barely audible at points, with murmurs like “I want to go home” that schism into glitched-out breaks, like a panic attack unravelling in full. Breathtakingly intimate, raw and near impossible to look away. (Günseli Yalcinkaya)
10. BLADEE & ECCO2K, CREST
This sincere sonic ode to the friendship of Bladee and Ecco2k was so sweet that it doesn’t even feel like it could have even been released during this hellfire year, and yet it was. Dropped at the height of Drain Gang’s world tour, the nine-track album captures the elusive group’s youthful nihilism through existential-lite lyrics and trancey synth lines: “We think we exist, that’s why we suffer, do we not?” croons Bladee on “5 Star Crest”, a five-part track dedicated to their friend and producer Vattenrum, who died in 2019.
Crest makes more sense when you consider it an anthology of music celebrating their lighthearted kinship created over the span of a few years, giving the rest of us something to hope for whilst the world seemingly crumbles. Bladee and Ecco2k flirt with religious iconography and playful nihilism, as casual listeners that initially found light within the angelic boyish falsettos unwittingly find themselves paying respects to the eternal cult of Drain Gang. (Hatti Rex)
9. MEGAN THEE STALLION, TRAUMAZINE
If anyone can turn trauma into a good time, it’s Megan Thee Stallion. While the botched release of her second studio album was traumatic in itself with alleged leaks from inside her label, the record was a demonstration in how Hot Girl Meg’s talent always rises above the nonsense. Franker than her previous releases in its direct acknowledgement of the hardships that have really mounted against her despite – or maybe even as a result of – her stratospheric rise, Traumazine relies less on her roster of rap personas and gets personal about being a “bad bitch” with “bad anxiety”, dealing with lost loved ones, fake friends, and constant criticism on the internet, particularly in relation to the Tory Lanez shooting. “Fuck it bitch, I’m not nice,” she declares on “Not Nice”, deliberately embodying the “boogie-bitch” her haters want to be scared of on the Rico Nasty featuring “Scary” and effortlessly, audaciously stunting “Mugler suit in my meeting, Wagyu steak what I’m eating,” while her “pussy is the most expensive meal you’ll ever eat,” on “Plan B”. An album to hype you up when the pressure is “Pressurelicious,” added pop hits like “Sweetest Pie” and delicious Jhené Aiko collab “Consistency” are a Megan Thee Stallion masterclass in how to clear your enemies while having a fun and sexy time – because she’s her, her, her, her, her, her, her. (Vanessa Hsieh)
8. VIAGRA BOYS, CAVE WORLD
The pandemic undeniably sent us all scrolling down some weird online wormholes – and this is particularly the case for Viagra Boys frontman Sebastian Murphy, whose third album Cave World plunges deep into the internet’s darkest corners. On lead single “Troglodyte”, Murphy sings about an incel who dreams of becoming a shooter – “He says he don't believe in science/ He thinks that all the news is fake,” he cries out – while “Return to Monkee”, a literal meme reference, turns a lens at the Theodore Kaczynski bros, as Murphy mockingly cries out “Leave society/ Be a monkey” against chaotic screeches of saxophone.
But no matter how hilarious Murphy’s takedowns of anti-vaxxers and Jordan Peterson bros are, Cave World doesn’t feel condemning – tracks like “Ain’t No Thief” and “Punk Rock Loser” are self-aware accounts of Murphy’s own lousy behaviour. If anything, the album and its debauched strain post-punk serve as a commentary on how fucking crazy the world is right now. As Murphy told Dazed earlier this year: “I think there’s a lot of inspiration just from the downfall of society and what’s been going on in the world recently and the divide between people and the extremely polar opposite ideas of how the world should be – and just this general feeling of chaos and destruction.” (Günseli Yalcinkaya)
7. JOCKSTRAP, I LOVE YOU JENNIFER B
Jockstrap’s debut album has been a long time coming. The experimental pop duo – made up of Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye – have been beloved by music critics since they first began collaborating at London’s Guildhall School Of Music back in 2016. Their classically trained roots and adventurous tastes come to the fore in I Love You Jennifer B, which – in typical Jockstrap style – is nearly impossible to categorise.
Recorded with the help of an 18-piece orchestra, it looks to both the past and the future, with easy breezes of 60s-style songwriting colliding with choppy distortions and harsh, complex textures. Most of the time, the genre mutates within each track: soft acoustic strums fall into cascading shrieks (“Neon”); breathy vocals ricochet like a pinball into digitised chaos (“Concrete Over Water”); operatic wails jolt suddenly into erratic bubblegum pop (“Debra”). It’s a sound that shouldn’t work at all, yet always does – partly thanks to the sparkling chemistry of Ellery and Skye. “I have my own feelings that I need to get out with my music,” Skye told AnOther earlier this year. “It’s my feelings and Georgia’s feelings put on top of each other.” The result is easily the most original mainstream release in recent memory. (Dominique Sisley)
6. ALEX G, GOD SAVE THE ANIMALS
God Save the Animals is Alex G’s ninth studio album and, beyond question, his best yet. For years best known as an ultra-DIY bedroom producer, the Philadelphia-based songwriter has capitalised on the possibilities afforded by his slow-burn success. From the beginning of his career, his sound has often been described as ‘lo-fi’, but you'd be hard-pressed to apply that label to an album which is so rich, lush and expansive in its sonic palette.
Rather than a radical departure, God Save the Animals expands on the elements which characterised his previous work - technical experimentation combined with a sharp knack for melody - and creates something which is both diverse and satisfyingly cohesive. There really is a lot going on here, from the hyper-pop explosion of “No Bitterness” to the thoughtful folk meditation of “Miracles”. But however playful his approach may be, it never feels as though Alex G is experimenting for the sake of it – there is a consistent tone which unites these wildly disparate genres and influences. At times – such as second single “Cross the Sea” – it reaches something approaching transcendence. (James Greig)
5. CHARLI XCX, CRASH
On August 15 2021, what seems like a lifetime ago, Charli XCX tweeted a picture of her own name etched across a tombstone, the date March 18, 2022 carved surreptitiously below. It was on this day, the Crash era was born. Both a meta-narrative on pop superstardom and a treatise on self-destruction, Charli’s fifth studio album is a pulsing, pop tour-de-force, inspired by the 80s sensibility of early Janet Jackson albums. The concept for Crash was constructed around David Cronenberg’s 1996 film of the same name, in which characters are sexually aroused by car wrecks, and through the album’s title track we are transported into Charli’s Ballardian, psychosexual soundscape: “I'm about to crash into the water/Gonna take you with me” she chants assuredly, its menacing intent perfectly offset by a sparkling synth refrain. The record’s most delicious moments, like the vocoded warble of Lightning’s pre-chorus, exist only because of Charli’s ability to satisfyingly scratch at the inside of your brain, proving a captivating hook really is nature’s purest drug. On Crash, pop is at its most primal. (Elliot Hoste)
4. ROSALÍA, MOTOMAMI
If, on the last album cover, Rosalía presented herself as a pseudo-religious figure – stood at the pearly gates, arms outstretched, swathed in white linen – then MOTOMAMI is what happens when the divine mother steps outside her margins – face obscured by a biker helmet, body covered only by acrylic nails and Rick Owens platforms. It’s a declaration she bears down in the opening seconds of “SAOKO” where she sing-raps “Yo me transformo” and “Fuck el estilo”. Throughout the album, Rosalía stretches herself across genres, shapeshifting between sultry melancholia and autotuned disaffections on “LA COMBI VERSACE” to the sassy and ridiculous sing-song quality of “BIZCOCHITO”. She meets dembow rhythms with seductive electronica on “CANDY”, clangorous cyberpunk with piano heartache on “CUUUUuuuuuute” and sings about riding her man’s “pistola” on “HENTAI” with such pathos that it evokes Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald. And then there’s her falsetto – mournful, pristine – that is the psychic break in 16-tracks of elastic, adrenaline-charged hydraulics. (Daniel Rodgers)
3. KENDRICK LAMAR, MR MORALE AND THE BIG STEPPERS
From soundtracking the BLM protests in 2020 with his track “Alright” to being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Damn, Kendrick has already shaped the rap landscape immeasurably. So, when Kendrick shared his fifth album back in May, it marked a turning point in the rapper’s career, not to mention his final release under Top Dawg Entertainment, the label he has remained a figurehead for a decade. From the mammoth opening track “United in Grief”, it’s clear the rapper has changed his focus. The 18 tracks venture deep into Lamar’s psyche as we sit in on his therapy session and bear witness to the rapper at his most vulnerable and confessional, exploring his childhood, fatherhood and marriage. Sonically, he builds upon his previous albums, incorporating sounds of jazz and psychedelia into tracks such as “Father Time”, alongside more contemporary trap bangers like “N95”. MMTBS is a genuine insight into the inner workings of one of hip-hop’s most gifted artists and a brilliant curtain call for his time at Top Dawg. (Louis Merrion)
2. ETHEL CAIN, PREACHER’S DAUGHTER
Ethel Cain’s anticipated studio album Preacher’s Daughter is an expansive, atmospheric debut. Suffusing ominous southern gothic with perfect pop melodies, doom-laden metal and aching country ballads, Cain invokes the late-night longing of nostalgic Americana tinged with a menace that’s all her own.
Cain is the musical alias of Hayden Silas Anhedönia. Born and raised in a Southern Baptist household with her deacon father in Tallahassee, she left the church at 16 before coming out as trans. Now 24, her first studio album explores the punitive, shadowy side of ecclesiastical life while retaining a certain romantic attachment to the potent symbolism of the church. Often drawing comparisons to Lana del Rey, Cain shares the queen of LA sadcore’s fetishisation of melancholy and her preoccupation with grand American narratives, but Preacher’s Daughter is undercut with something more incendiary. If del Rey is the prom queen, Cain is the subversive outsider, skipping prom to smoke cigarettes with the wild girls. (Emily Dinsdale)
1. BEYONCÉ, RENAISSANCE
When you’re Beyoncé, what’s left to conquer? You’ve already achieved icon status a thousand times over, so would be forgiven for resting on one’s laurels, relaxing in the knowledge that your work has made an indelible mark on the culture. Well, not this Beyoncé. When Renaissance dropped in the middle of an otherwise lacklustre summer, it felt like the one thing on this cursed planet we could all agree on: she’d done it again. From the very first listen, the flagrant bombast of ‘I’m That Girl’ led to the strutting bravado of ‘Alien Superstar’, melding into the glassy flow of ‘Virgo’s Groove’, and on, and on, and on – a track-by-track masterclass in constructing a world of dance music influences, paying homage to the original trailblazers and fashioning a path of its own. The one problem? Renaissance has been out for four months and, still, not a single visual in sight. Catch me at the gates of Parkwood Entertainment a la Eric Andre, screaming: release the tapes!!! (Elliot Hoste)