We know all too well by now to expect the unexpected. But in these times of perma-crisis, it’s been at least reassuring that music can deliver surprises just as well as the wider world can.
Our choices from this year’s albums include artistes coming back after decade absences, sometimes in the most alarming circumstances.
They include that most baseline and fundamental – even conservative – of dance music genres, house, pushing into the spotlight and reasserting its deep rooted potential for newness.
Also, don't forget the most brattish of hip hop stars displaying huge maturity, and indie rock rejuvenated by glorious immaturity.
Throw into the mix African artistes dominating underground music and Latin American artistes dominating the global pop market – in each case with zero compromise for Anglophone audiences.
Finally, there is the veteran Japanese rockers making sound as sonically exploratory as the youngest, hippest club musician.
It’s a weird, wired world out there, but it’s producing some truly wonderful sounds.
JIMETTA ROSE – 'HOW GOOD IT IS'
Jimetta Rose. Credit: Collective Flow
At only six tracks this is barely an album but we’re having it anyway because it was one of the most delightful, sustaining releases of the year – or any year.
As she explained expansively to us in September, veteran LA session singer Jimetta Rose created a community choir to escape from over-schooled musicianship and give voice to collective celebration.
Channelling 1970s spiritual jazz, gospel and a multifaceted spirituality, the results could give a lift to just about any situation.
LOUIS VEGA – 'EXPANSIONS IN THE NYC'
As we noted in July, house music ruled 2022. Of course for those who love it, house has always been the beating heart of subculture but with Beyonce and Drake bringing it to the pinnacle of the mainstream it hasn’t been so exposed for a while.
And this three-hour magnum opus demonstrated house at its very purest: buzzing with disco, jazz-funk, techno, Latin, gospel and pop influences but always house above all else.
BAD BUNNY – 'UN VERANO SIN TI'
One of the best albums of the year was also one of the biggest. Bad Bunny may not get the press of Taylor Swift, Drake or Billie Eilish, but he rivals them for popularity – and on his fourth album he soars creatively.
A sad hymn to Puerto Rico, it’s entirely in Spanish, with no attempt at Anglo pop crossover, no guests from outside the Latin music world – and it’s dynamite.
Revealing the deep emotion and sonic power in reggaeton and related styles, it simultaneously plucks the heartstrings and feels like a triumph of global pop decoupled from the old Euro-US dominance.
WET LEG – 'WET LEG'
Wet Leg. Credit: Hollie Fernando
While most of the things we’ve loved this year tested the boundaries of genres, it was great to find there was still a place for straight ahead unadulterated indie pop.
Channelling the classic energy that runs through Blondie, Elastica, Arctic Monkeys and more, the duo of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers breathed new life into guitar-led singalongs with arch wit, untold innuendo and tunes for days.
For all its sass and knowingness, this was a delightfully uncynical record in its obvious love for the medium.
TOXICATED KEYS – 'FROM THUTLWANE TO THE WORLD'
Right at the start of the year we went big on the dazzling electronic sounds of South Africa – and 2022 only continued to deliver more.
Most impressive of all was this debut collection by two teenage producers from the township of Mamelodi East, in Pretoria, via a Parisian label.
Taking the blueprint of amapiano – the hypnotic, bass heavy South African house sound – they amped it up, making it bigger and more dramatic in all directions.
This is one to get on as loud as possible: it will knock the breath out of you in the best possible way.
HOT CHIP – 'FREAKOUT/RELEASE'
Hot Chip. Credit: Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Lyrically, Hot Chip’s ninth album is shot through with doubt, weariness and a yearning for authenticity that feels just out of reach. But musically it’s as instant and even joyful as anything they’ve ever done.
Unafraid to wear big influences – Pet Shop Boys, Chemical Brothers, Chic – on its sleeve, it bubbles with passion for the possibilities of pop, dance and rock music.
It inspired us to dig deep into current alt-pop.
HUDSON MOHAWKE – 'CRY SUGAR'
A true maturing. From teenage Glasgow happy hardcore rave DJ to weird hip-hop sylist to EDM superstar to producing for Kanye West, Ross Birchard has always put his all into everything he’s done.
And somehow all of that and more are in here.
A vision of a world on the edge of chaos, but still with care for the people in it, it blurs the most populist and weirdest music together into a strangely soulful, extremely potent cocktail.
LORAINE JAMES – 'BUILDING SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL FOR ME'
Loraine James. Credit :Suleika Müller
On her fourth album, London electronic explorer Loraine James has expanded her horizons still further, geographically and temporally.
Taking the work of the late NYC avant-garde composer Julius Eastman as a starting point, she’s woven his approach into her own to create a multidimensional exploration of young, queer, Black, exploratory creativity.
And just as importantly, she really has built something beautiful.
HAGAN – 'TEXTURES'
The feedback loops that run through various African diasporic populations have been energised and re-energised over recent years. Ghanaian-British producer Hagan is an exemplar of this: his fusions of underground dance sounds from London, Accra and elsewhere with jazz, soul, house and more make for rich and vivid listening, whether on the dancefloor or with your feet up at home.
BEYONCÉ – 'RENAISSANCE'
Another reminder that the ultra-mainstream can still be a platform for thrilling innovation. Beyoncé’s solo album was hyped for bringing house music into the mix – but it lived up to all that hype.
Crucially it joined dots through LGBTQ+ club culture, Latin and African subgenres and EDM – reminding the world of dance music’s Black roots, and still managing to sound completely like a Beyonce record.
KAITLYN AURELIA SMITH – 'LET'S TURN IT INTO SOUND'
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has made some of the most transportingly meditative synth music of the modern age – but increasingly she’s making some of the wildest and spikiest too.
This album is as joyously jarring as its dayglo artwork: rippling, spurting and shivering with energy, with song structures that zig-zag like jazzy prog rock.
This is pop music for extra-dimensional aliens.
NINA NASTASIA – 'RIDERLESS HORSE'
Nina Nastasia. Credit: Theo Stanley
This one was tough. An artiste emerging from the pits of abuse, despair and dysfunction, ready to explain in some detail exactly what had been going wrong.
It’s testament to Nastasia’s intelligence and musicianship that she could turn this into the barest, starkest album she’s ever made, and make it somehow a vehicle for hope and love for humanity without sugaring the pill.
We looked deeper into the background here.
THE COMET IS COMING – 'HYPER-DIMENSIONAL EXPANSION BEAM'
Thoughtful and quietly spoken in person, when it comes to creativity saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings sometimes feels like he could be the answer to the energy crisis.
As well as being a crucial mentor to the young London jazz scene he maintains multiple musical projects – not least the fearsome jazz-rock of The Comet Is Coming with keyboardist Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett.
On their third album, they channel krautrock, Mogwai-like post rock, trance, dubstep, disco and more into bolts of raw power.
BORIS – 'W'
Japan’s masters of heaviness Boris never stand still. Thus, they followed the crust-punk raging of 2021’s No with the most sonically advanced record they’ve made in their almost 30 year career.
From spooky wooziness to abstract ambience to doom metal grind, every element is lifted by hyper-detailed artistry to the sonic sculpting in the studio.
Every listen brings new details to light.
EARL SWEATSHIRT – 'SICK!'
Earl Sweatshirt. Credit: Ryosuke Tanzawa
Hip-hop is prone to glutting as endlessly competitive artistes flood product into the market – but Californian Earl Sweatshirt bucked the trend by making a perfectly-formed 24-minute album.
Still only 27 when he released it, the alumnus of the Odd Future crew sounds like an elder statesman: wise, witty, inspirational and exploring musical depths without betraying the immediate impact.
We got right into it here.
SYD – 'BROKEN HEARTS CLUB'
Earl Sweatshirt wasn’t the only former Odd Future member growing up gracefully. Syd – formerly Syd Tha Kid – has had a prodigious output with her band The Internet and latterly solo, but this is easily her best.
Telescoping together decades of modern soul and R&B, it’s an epic exploration of love and loss from all angles, from a sometime player starting to yearn for something stable.
And there isn’t a weak song on it.
CATE LE BON – 'POMPEII'
Back in February we talked of the Welsh reinaissance woman Cate Le Bon’s vision on her sixth solo album being “deluxe and delirious, surreal and literary”, and almost a year on that still beams out of Pompeii.
It’s less spiky, less rock than its predecessors, but it’s also her most vivid and confident record to date – hugely clever, but never ostentatiously so, always with sound, production, references and lyrics meshed like a deliciously complex machine.
YEAH YEAH YEAHS – 'COOL IT DOWN'
Yeah Yeah Yeah. Credit: David Black
It’s almost impossible to believe that this is a band that formed two decades ago, and has barely done anything in the second of those decades.
Straight off the bat it’s a gleeful explosion of gospel, blues, synth pop, sludge rock, punk and everything else that made Yeah Yeah Yeahs great in the first place but amped up even further.
Perhaps the most inspiring comeback of the year, and a definite keeper.
WU-LU – 'LOGGERHEAD'
Punk, lo-fi, hip-hop, jungle, soul: South Londoner Miles “Wu-Lu” Romans-Hopcraft can do it all – but crucially he can make it all sound like a very natural expression of his persona and milieu.
Combining urban disaffection, vigorous expression of the joy of subcultural participation and a good dose of aggro fun, he created a very British, very gritty statement on his second album (and debut for the legendary Warp Records imprint).
KOJEY RADICAL – 'REASON TO SMILE'
Another artiste energised by the renaissance of jazz and soul in London, rapper-singer Kojey Radical is an explosion of charisma, wordplay and challenging questions.
Turbocharged here by the work of superproducer and multi-instrumentalist Swindle, he completely kicks aside distinctions between “conscious” and “street” in hip-hop, delivering something that goes back to old school values but is unmistakeably of 2022 at every turn.
STEALING SHEEP – 'WOW MACHINE'
Stealing Sheep. Credit: Holly Whittaker
We called this "a total trip" in July, and meant that in many senses. Another band maturing brilliantly, the Liverpool synth three piece have turned into a band that can take you on a journey, both in terms of a psychedelic escape from reality, and in terms of a real narrative voyage, almost like a sci-fi radio play.
This album is serious fun, and well worth putting on in the dark to see where it can take you.
VINCE STAPLES – 'RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART'
Californian Vince Staples is another true individualist in hip-hop.
The production and vocal tone on this album is reminiscent of the narcotic murk of much “Soundcloud rap” or “mumble rap” – simultaneously futuristic and rooted in the blues – but where those styles tend to be melancholy narcotic ruminations, Staples specialises in a steelier social realism.
Not the cheeriest listen, but massively compelling.
Listen to the sounds of 22.
Cover Credit: A Paper Creative
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs