It was a year of albums and songs about Earthlings and aliens, gods and devils, monsters and dogs, and everything else
1. Rosalía, ‘Motomami’
This 30-year-old Catalan auteur currently stands as pop’s most exciting futurist since Missy Elliott, but whenever her music makes you wonder what century this is, don’t forget to look both ways. Steeped in age-old flamenco traditions and rendered in high-def tomorrow sounds, “Motomami” reconciles an irretrievable past with an untouchable future.
2. Straw Man Army, ‘SOS’
NYC’s SMA opens “SOS” with a lyric for the ages, and for this cruel and unusual age in particular: “Humankind can be hard to find.” But that doesn’t mean this duo has given up the search. Throughout these brutally efficient, efficiently brutal punk songs, they scribble out a blueprint for surviving the planet-rotting effects of capitalism with empathy and grace.
3. FKA twigs, ‘Caprisongs’
At first, the interstitial skits that spackle “Caprisongs” — lots of positive self-talk and manifestation woo-woo — felt like a distraction, but they’re obviously here to show us how a pop singer prone to solemnity got herself in tune with the universe enough to channel this fantastic, life-affirming fizz.
4. Bill Callahan, ‘Ytilaer’
How low can he go? The deeper Callahan’s baritone continues to plunge, the more his albums seem to get to the bottom of things. This one is filled with astonishingly deep, folk-like ballads about growing children, dying parents, plagued nations and planets that sing.
5. Jeff Parker, ‘Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy’
Here’s some who-what-where-when-why: Jeff Parker is the longtime Tortoise guitarist who’s remade his career in jazz in recent years, and this is his first double-live album, performed at the Enfield Tennis Academy (a bar in Los Angeles, actually), recorded on assorted Monday nights in 2019 and 2021. Why? Maybe to prove that questing improvisation can ultimately feel cool and patient. Or if not that, maybe to prove that cool and patient listening can get you closer to your answer.
6. Lucrecia Dalt, ‘¡Ay!’
As humans continue to fill the tower of song with ditties about happy days and heartbreak, this Colombian singer-composer is penning bolero-esque lullabies about immaterial alien spirits who don’t experience time. Can you guess which type of song is more likely to tell you something entirely new about yourself?
7. Kelsey Waldon, ‘No Regular Dog’
Maybe the best way to describe this Kentucky-raised singer — who sings with a twang of supreme self-possession — is to cue up the title track of the year’s best country album and let her explain herself: “I ain’t no regular dog. More like a wolf on the kill, howling at and hiding in the shadows from the clouds hanging over me.”
8. Cate Le Bon, ‘Pompeii’
When a skeptical friend described this Welsh singer-songwriter’s latest-greatest work as “unfunky Bowie,” his diss forward-flipped into my ear as high praise — or at least as a very good explanation of how Le Bon has deflated David Bowie’s late-’70s songbook and pumped it full of a life force that’s entirely her own.
9. Anteloper, ‘Pink Dolphins’
The jazz community is still reeling over the loss of trumpeter jaimie branch, who died suddenly in August, not long after the release of “Pink Dolphins” by Anteloper, her venturesome duo with drummer Jason Nazary. As a composer, branch leaves a legacy of big sounds and bold decisions. On this album, she also leaves behind an anthem for freaks and outsiders, a song she sang from the warmest depths of her heart and the coolest corner of her mind: “We’re not the Earthlings that you know.”
10. Young Nudy, ‘EA Monster’
Of all the Gucci Mane pupils currently roaming the Atlanta rapscape, Young Nudy sounds like the star student on “EA Monster,” mixing menace and playtime with the same facility as his teacher, softening his gelatinous rhymes until they threaten to liquefy.
1. Beyoncé, ‘Break My Soul’
Close your eyes and picture the word “Beyoncé” floating to the forefront of your consciousness. What do you hear in your mind’s ear? Until recently, the brain composing these words heard either “Me, Myself and I” or Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” — two songs where Beyoncé’s voice and lyrics converge into near-perfect expressions of indomitability. But now I hear a new Beyoncé song, a better Beyoncé song, (the best Beyoncé song?), a song that refuses to surrender to life’s endless indignities, a song that consecrates the concept of hope, a song to be gathered around and danced to for the rest of our lives, a song we can believe in because it was made to last that long and then some.
2. Gunna, Future, Young Thug, ‘Pushin P’
“Pushin P” is a triumph of alliteration — in its lyrics, “P” stands for paranoid, Patek, peace, piece, pills, pink, pint, plot, pockets, pointers, pop, porcelains, Porsches, Portuguese, pouring, presidents, private, purple, a few unprintables and most famously, “pesbian.” But it’s also a riddle in that “P” means none of those things. As rap music continues to expand the limits of the English language, this song broadens the capaciousness of a single letter.
3. Ice Spice, ‘Munch (Feelin’ U)’
Whether you discovered this precious gem of a rap song by paying unblinking attention to the Gotham drill scene or by mindlessly gazing into that handheld interdimensional portal known as TikTok, Ice Spice’s breakout hit “Munch (Feelin’ U)” probably sounded like something entirely new, that is, a stylish Bronx slang tutorial delivered with a new sang-froid.
4. Lil Yachty, ‘Poland’
Big rap songs got shorter this year, but this one aims to squeeze the full panorama of human emotion into its fleeting 83 seconds. On the refrain, Yachty appears to be singing about being so zooted on codeine, he feels like he’s lost in another country, his Auto-Tuned vibrato registering as tragicomic, pulling hard in both directions at once.
5. Sky Ferreira, ‘Don’t Forget’
As pop songs about the visceral pleasures of grudge-holding go, “Don’t Forget” ranks high, with Ferreira looking to the horizon and hallucinating armageddon. “Tears of fire in the sky,” she sings in a voice born too late for ’80s radio. “Makes me feel good to be alive.”
6. Cass McCombs, ‘Belong to Heaven’
“You surrendered undefeated,” McCombs sings here, quite possibly from his highest songwriting heights. “Now you belong to heaven.” In channeling the sweetness of the Everly Brothers and the finesse of Roy Orbison, an unknowable troubadour sends a bright, devastating eulogy to one of their neighbors.
7. Qasim Naqvi, Wadada Leo Smith, Andrew Cyrille, ‘For D.F.’
The scope of this jazz trio’s terrific new album, “Two Centuries,” resides in its opening track with drummer Andrew Cyrille sketching the rhythm, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith smearing the melody, and Qasim Naqvi — who has studied under both of his legendary bandmates, and has played in the melted-clockwork ensemble Dawn of Midi — making his synthesizers hum in the general key of the universe.
8. Huerco S., Sir E.U, ‘Plonk IX’
Cheers to the electronic music producer Huerco S. for creating this space for one of the most inventive and underrated rappers alive to embark on a true odyssey-verse populated with gods and devils, friends and fascists, and one particularly colossal understatement delivered in the form of a deadpan punchline: ‘You can’t take this on ‘Ellen.’”
9. Pusha T, ‘Brambleton’
An A.D. 2022 collaboration between Pusha T and Pharrell Williams isn’t all that exciting on paper, so it’s a good thing that music isn’t confined to keystrokes on a page. Instead, this deliciously sinister little speaker-blower deserves to reside alongside your fondest memories of “Hell Hath No Fury”-era Clipse and/or inside your coolest nightmares.
10. Mindforce, ‘Survival Is Vengeance’
If living well really is the best revenge, it checks out that a hardcore punk take on that old maxim would strip away the wellness part. This Hudson Valley outfit exudes a furious kind of fortitude, the kind that knows the hardness of this world, then tries to eclipse it.