2022 in the music industry was marked by surprise— many notable artists and bands made a comeback with albums completely shattering the styles they embraced before. As we head into the new year, we’ve rounded up our top picks for the best albums of 2022, and there were some true gems. From glimmering pop to smooth R&B, these were the records that we think best exemplify the brilliance of the past year in music.
Dawn FM by The Weeknd – Oliver Barnfield
If you think The Weeknd makes slick, disposable pop music intended for car radios and edgy guys on Instagram, think again. There’s a conceptual depth to Dawn FM that only truly reveals itself as the album continues, rewarding multiple listens and making it best experienced as a full album from start to finish. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t nearly as successful as its predecessor, 2019’s After Hours– its songs couldn’t really be spun into standalone singles without missing something from the conceptual whole. Many songs segue into one another, and some are linked by interstitial spoken word segments provided by Jim Carrey, playing a spiritual and almost godlike radio host. Many songs concern aging and death, presaged by the album cover, which presents the artist as an elderly man. It’s a remarkably ugly cover for a great album, and maybe it would have succeeded with a more eye-catching front sleeve. Although many songs are indeed somewhat morose in sound and subject matter, they are supplanted by some of the most delicious party jams that Abel Tesfaye has ever produced. The record leans hard into the 80s-inspired synth pop of After Hours, which was always my favorite part of his sound anyway– I never cared much for his more trap-centric hits like The Hills but I’ve always loved synthier tunes like Can’t Feel My Face. Yet while these songs recall the past, they aren’t entirely locked in it– collaborators like Tyler, the Creator, electronic music genius Oneohtrix Point Never, and hitmaker Max Martin provide modern flair while elsewhere Beach Boy Bruce Johnston brings sweet harmonies and Michael Jackson producer Quincy Jones orates a moving story (in a manner uncannily similar to Giorgio by Moroder from Weeknd collaborators Daft Punk). The second half of the album loses the plot a bit– it leans more heavily towards the demented disc jockey theme and is almost entirely made up of slow-jam ballads. They are still sprinkled liberally with 80s flair but aren’t as propulsive or memorable as the shimmering pop bangers like Take My Breath in the first half. However, the final track pulls everything together– a beautiful poem by Carrey that he recites in a truly heartwarming manner. It’s his best performance in years. His poem nearly brought a tear to my eye in its beauty and meaning, a stunning rumination on death and longing, and coming from Jim Carrey on a Weeknd album of all things. Perhaps it was experimental songs like this that made the album fare poorly compared to After Hours, its predecessor. Despite this, it remains my favorite album of this year and includes some songs that I suspect will grow on the public.
5SOS5 by Five Seconds of Summer – Amy Simon
“The Feeling of Falling Upward” was the name Australian pop rock band 5 Seconds of Summer (5SOS) gave to their global live stream performance at the world-class Royal Albert Hall. The performance debuted new songs from the 5SOS5 album while intertwining other well-known tunes. The name was a seemingly perfect fit for the event, encapsulating everything I felt about the new project. Produced by lead guitarist Michael Clifford, the album introduces the creative new sound of the band while still including hints of previous sounds through songs such as Emotions and TEARS! My favorite song of the album was CAROUSEL, as the piano and hard-hitting beats of the guitar and drums perfectly wrapped Luke Hemmings’ falsettos. The song provided delicate harmonic soft beats that beautifully climaxed into a compelling chorus and bridge. Another stand-out song was Older, a duet between Hemmings and his wife, Sierra Deaton. Deaton’s high harmony, matched with Hemmings’ smooth melody, makes the song float. Additionally, the song’s lyricism provides a delicate and tender scene of growing older with a loved one. My favorite lyric “our love is tailor-made, but we let the edges fray” leaves me reminiscing memories of loved ones. As a devoted 5SOS fan, listening to this album left me floored. The transition from the last album, CALM, to the new project showcased their growth as artists and a new sense of maturity. 5SOS5 shattered the scale of 2022 album rankings and left me highly anticipating their next tour and album.
Everything I Know About Love by Laufey – Sabrina Kim
In a time filled with stress, exhaustion, and year-end burnout, sometimes all you need is a smooth, piano-powered album with gentle, ornate vocals to kick back with. In her first-ever full-length album, Icelandic-Chinese singer/songwriter Laufey Lin pairs classic jazz sensibilities with ultra-contemporary lyrics to incredible effect. Tracks like Fragile and Falling Behind feature subdued bossa nova just creative enough to rise above the elevator music stereotype, whereas Just Like Chet and Beautiful Stranger make use of Old Disney-style ballads, with lilting melodies that float just above the instrumentals. And even through the almost dissonant ragtime piano of Dance With You Tonight, Laufey’s voice reigns supreme. Impressively– yet subtly– skilled, with an obvious background in vocal training, she blends seamlessly with the nearly ethereal instrumentals, leaving the listener wistful, awed, and likely humming along. A trip around Youtube proves that her vocals aren’t merely the result of post-production, either, as she frequently releases stripped-back acoustic versions of her songs that bring the gentle intimacy of her singing to the next level. The writing, too, is masterful, with each song nodding to – fittingly – a piece of a love story. Some are private, mundane, nostalgic reflections on the past, like Above the Chinese Restaurant, whereas others are sweeping modern waltzes, like the titular single Everything I Know About Love. Lin and her co-writers, frequently Spencer Stewart and Leroy Clampitt, utilize poetic techniques like enjambment to magnificent and deeply genuine effect. Each track has the sense of old-fashioned jazz improvisation that calls to mind crackly, lovesick, gramophone Christmas songs. But Laufey’s album has about one leg up above Sinatra’s Let It Snow or Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby– her peaceful, earnest album filled to the brim with musicality and love can be thoroughly enjoyed year in and year out.
SOS by SZA – Hannah Ashtari
On SOS, SZA is out for blood. The twisty, angst-imbued album clocks in at just over one disquieting hour, which the songstress fills with pained, regret-tinged ballads (Special, Nobody Gets Me), her trademark dreamlike R&B (Snooze, Blind) and contemplative revenge anthems (too many to count). SOS lacks the cohesiveness of SZA’s cult-favorite debut album Ctrl, but the dissonance works here, her painfully honest songwriting tying together what could have been an otherwise disappointing sophomore release. SOS takes the time to really let the emotional turmoil seep in: “Inward I go when there’s no one around me / And memories drown me, the further I go,” she laments on Gone Girl, before questioning her emotional stability and worth on Too Late: “Is it bad that I want more? / Is it too late for us?” But SOS has more to offer than sad-girl anthems. On the breakout hit Kill Bill, she seethes and fumes over a sly, catchy melody, with murder on her mind: “If I can’t have you, no one will / I might kill my ex,” SZA hums. Pop-punk anthem F2F also stands out as one of the most notable and quotable songs off SOS, its catchy electric guitar riffs arriving just after the halfway point of the album to take listeners by surprise. The song channels braggadocio and self-loathing in equal measure – “I hate me enough for the two of us,” SZA confesses, but the Avril Lavigne-esque rebelliousness of the chorus scores over any lingering altruism her confessions carry. The album also includes four features, SZA’s duet with melancholy indie-folk megastar Phoebe Bridgers, Ghost in the Machine, revealing itself to be the standout of the quartet, as the song sees the Bridgers’ vocals overlap and intertwine with SZA’s until the two are an indistinguishable, haunting haze. SOS revels in mixed-up, uncomfortable feelings, but after wrestling with them for 23 tracks, SZA doesn’t try to pretend to rise above the messy, bitter emotions. All she knows is that they’ve left a lasting mark on her: “I might forgive it, I won’t forget it,” the singer intones on the album’s closing track, Forgiveless. And if the larger than life inner-monologue of an album like SOS is the result of clinging to those grudges, she shouldn’t try to.
Heroes and Villains by Metro Boomin – Jay Bettadpur and Indy McBrearty
Continuing on his already significant fame as a producer, Metro Boomin released his second studio album, including features from Travis Scott, Young Thug, 21 Savage, and many more, even including Morgan Freeman. Experienced as a producer, Metro experimented with new beats on a cleverly produced set of songs, mixing trap beats like on Umbrella with slower upbeat sounds such as those on Niagara Falls. The album contains many a reference to popular culture, from sampling Homelander, a villain from the show The Boys, on On Time, to referencing I Don’t Wanna Know by Mario Winans on Creepin’. But besides the production, a lot of what makes an album by Metro Boomin amazing is the star-studded list of features. The title of the album’s most recurring artist is shared between three: 21 Savage, Travis Scott, and Future. Not only is he featured heavily on this album, but 21 Savage is a very frequent collaborator, having made three collaboration albums with Metro Boomin prior to this one. One of his prominent features on the album is Umbrella, a song that he shares with his cousin Young Nudy. The album has plenty of memorable verses, like Don Toliver’s on Too Many Nights and the late Takeoff’s on Feel the Fiyaaaah. But overall, a lot of what built the hype for this album and the interest in the story behind it was a comic book-style rollout by Metro Boomin, releasing parody Marvel posters for each artist on the album. Metro also released a mini-movie prior to the release, previewing songs on the album, along with a Morgan Freeman narration. Although the album was released at the end of the year, its memorable features and crafted production help cement it as one of the best albums of the year, and maybe even his best album.
Midnights by Taylor Swift- Aanika Hirode
“I’m just too soft for all of it.” After dabbling and excelling in the indie genre with folklore and evermore, Taylor Swift finally returned to the pop genre that defined her rise to fame with a newfound vulnerability. Midnights initially received a lukewarm response; newer listeners were confused by the electric production and seemingly cursory lyrics. Not to sound like a bitter and weathered fan (although I think that’s exactly how it comes off), but those who have been around for a while recognize Swift’s versatile artistry as one of the most alluring aspects of her music. Although the brief alternative interlude was very well-received, the amalgamation of styles found in Midnights truly represents a culmination of Swift’s career. Rhythmic pop hits such as Lavender Haze and Karma evoke memories of 1989, and the whimsical lyrics (Sweet like honey, karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ‘cause it loves me) contrast with a marked maturity to exemplify Swift’s artistic growth. Then there are the devastating acoustic narratives— Maroon and Sweet Nothing respectively represent a calamitous love and a tranquil one. Some of the crowd favorites on this record, however, are the tracks that combine styles to create a new sound distinctive of Midnights. Always full of surprises, Swift shocked fans with a deluxe edition of the album just three hours after the initial release. Appropriately named Midnights (3am Edition), the seven additional tracks significantly amped up the appeal of the record. Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve painfully recalled a relationship that shattered Swift’s innocence, while The Great War portrayed a devastating paradox between the relief occurring after tumult and the foreshadowing of future disaster. With the extended edition, Swift accomplished what so many artists have tried and failed to do— she provided tracks that both integrated cohesively with the original songs and added a unique perspective to them. It’s clear Swift has reached the pinnacle of her career, where she can experiment with various styles and achieve smashing success, and Midnights is a quintessential example.