A year ago, in January 2022, I ran across an article listing the top 25 songs of 2021 according to Billboard magazine. Now, I’d stopped actively following the national music scene and the Billboard Hot 100 back in the ’90s when I was living in Boston because the local music scene was so rich that I happily sunk into it and stopped paying attention to what was happening outside the little clubs and labels there. I heard some of the best music of my life during this time, including songs I was convinced would’ve been big smash hits from coast to coast if they could’ve gotten the exposure. Then, I was living in Pacific Northwest, where I was involved in activism and then farming, neither of which left time for pop radio. I’ll admit I also felt like I should dismiss popular music, or should try to hold myself above it or something, because “corporate,” “shallow,” blah blah blah.
But in January 2022, I checked out that article, and listened to the songs on the popular video sharing website. To my surprise, I liked some of it. So next I went through the top 100 for the year, and found a few more things that appealed to me. Then I started digging, to see what I’d missed since the turn of the millennium. I ended up putting together several playlists of 2000s music, and from April onwards they were my mainstays when driving, doing farmwork, etc. Over the year, I made more playlists comprised of just 2022 music, as new releases came out. For six solid months, I basically ignored my music collection in favor of exploring current/recent bands & songs. It was really enjoyable actually.
It’s a common cliche to claim that music now isn’t as good as it used to be, and I had that question in the back of my mind as I surveyed. I definitely have a bit to say about it (spoiler warning, “no”) but that’s for another essay on another day.
In the meantime, just for fun, here’s my top 10 favorite songs that came out in 2022. I put together a playlist of the videos here.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of Countepunch, said this year that an intrinsic quality of rock music is that it “sucks.” I hasten to mention he said this as a fan. This song calls that quotation to mind for me. From the overly strummed acoustic guitar of the first few bars, to the hackneyed solo, to the lazy feedback at the end, sucking is reveled in here. As befits the lyrics, in which the angsty protagonists spout their displeasure with social expectations, casually drop references to their own drug use, and express their inner turmoil, all the while snickering about how they disappoint other people just by being themselves. It’s pure rock and roll and it kinda sucks and what’s not to like? Be sure to check out GAYLE’s music. which puts the “rev” back in irreverent.
In my explorations of contemporary and older music one thing that impressed me was the lyrical content. Yes of course there’s a lot of stupid stuff (as there always has been), but there’s also been an expansion of themes since, say, the ’80s when I was a teenager listening to top 40 radio. This song is about being slut-shamed and how unfair that is. Totally not something I heard on the radio back in the day, and it’s very welcome to be moving beyond the virgin/whore dichotomy. Musically, note that this song bucks the “Death of the Key Change” trend with its soaring bridge and climax, from which Ms. Carpenter brings the song gracefully to rest. This might be the most popular song on this list, as it has 428,000 likes on YouTube.
It’s hard not to love this song if you watch the video, for which Ms. Cole assembled a multiethnic troupe of fabulous gay dancers. Everyone’s obviously having so much fun, prancing around and mugging for the camera, with Ms. Cole smirking the entire time that you’d have to be dead not to catch the vibe. The lyric, “Giddy up cowboy, if you’re down to ride / You can keep your boots on if you like” could definitely have been penned by a gay man. For her part, she sings, “I’m a woman, not a lady,” and it’s clear that, like Ms. Carpenter, she also has no use for traditional roles. By the end of video, she’s made a great case for casting them off in the interest of enjoying yourself.
They say rock and roll is dead, and as far as charting songs go, that’s true and has been for years, but there’s still people making good rock music, as these alt-rockers do. These guys will probably remind a lot of people of Radiohead, but I never listened to them, and I’m taken back to the smoky clubs of Boston, Cambridge & Somerville by this moody, noisy, yet melodic song, with its rattling acoustic guitar, screaming lead electric, and long trail-out of feedback. Yep, I still really like this kind of thing, even if it’s out now.
Country music has always had an outlaw element, and Ms. Ballerini brings it back with delightful wit in this buddy song about breaking the law and (hopefully) getting away with it. Best use of the word, “hypothetically,” in a song lyric I’ve ever heard. Listen for it and you’ll definitely get a chuckle. If you say you don’t like country—and the fiddle and finger picking ensconce this tune solidly in that genre—do yourself a favor of making an exception for this song. Or, think of it as a riot-folk. Lyrically, there’s enough anti-authoritarianism and mutual aid in there to deem it an anarchist anthem!
This song’s opening line, “maybe you’re not sad enough,” is a reasonable retort from a depressed person being told to “just cheer up” and the rest of this intense song explores that spirit with both raw confessional honesty and raucous musical expression. Both vulnerable and brash, the singer lays out her pain with alternating despondency and rebelliousness. By the end you should’ve gotten the message that she’s on her own journey and you shouldn’t be judgey. No, she doesn’t have all the answers, but you definitely don’t either. Very much worth checking out is this band’s five chapter EP, “Happiness is an Inside Job,” which explores the same themes, and which I respect as a serious statement about the emotional struggles of contemporary life. You want “relevant”? Look no further than Royal & the Serpent.
Another ’90s style alt-rocker, and another dive into angst and depression. “Oh, no, oh, my God / How’d I get so damn unlovable? / Yeah, it’s all my fault / Can’t believe it’s so unnatural.” Young people these days are definitely having a hard time, but as always, suffering makes for great art, and this is a great tune. My favorite musical element is the driving but warbly-guitar line, which has a Harrison-esque run-through-a-Leslie-speaker effect. This track would be at home on a mix of Seattle grunge.
Maybe my favorite new artist, but I’m a sucker for piano pop, and Ms. Beihold released half a dozen such in 2022. It was hard to pick which of her songs I like the very best for this list, and this one only just edges out, “Groundhog Day,” and it’s because of the lyrics, which open with, “I don’t feel a single thing / Have the pills done too much?” and then run through a litany of self-doubt, reluctant hopefulness, and difficult questions. Is she a voice for her generation? (The Millennials.) I want to know because her words ring so true and her sincerity feels so real, and if so, gosh, y’all are really hurting; damn. I recommend listening to all her other songs. Here’s hoping this is just the beginning of a long career.
Rarely does someone have an oeuvre in which I like every single song, but Ashe is in that tiny category. She’s a singer/songwriter who’s been putting music for a few years now, and this year she released her second full-length album, “Rae,” which is her high water mark so far, in terms of writing, lyrics, and craft. I’m tempted to call it one of the best ’70s records I’ve ever heard, due to its production being so deeply committed to the sounds of that decade, though not in a name-the-influence kind of way. It’s more at the level of how the instruments are mixed, and how the songs are arranged. Give it a listen and see if you hear anything that would’ve been out of place in, say, 1977, and I doubt if you’ll find anything. But I don’t want to stress this too much, because it’s not employed as a gimmick, or a call-back, but just as a palette. Anyway, I had trouble narrowing it down to one song for this list, and I included “Angry Woman” because it is the most interesting in terms of both lyrics and music being impressive. The structure is not typical of a pop or rock song, and the explosive final section drives home her message, which is “fuck you.” Incidentally, the video was inspired by a Yoko Ono performance piece. Check out this song, then listen to the entire album.
No song fascinated me more in 2022 than this one, largely because of its idiosyncratic structure. Is it verse / bridge / coda? Or? It’s a wave that builds and then breaks in a very pleasing manner—and a fade-out is a novelty these days—but what exactly is going on? My musician friend, Dave, likened it to a three-act play, and I think that’s the best way to describe it. Besides the structure, the lyrics also stand out for being quite enigmatic yet somehow also approachable, and in the final section, transcendent. He’s undoubtedly speaking for himself about something or someone he never names, yet in his personable way, makes it feel like he’s confiding in you. I won’t try to describe his voice other than to say his style of delivery walks right up the line of being affected, but stays just on the right side of it; his youth gives his earnestness an entirely genuine quality. I also love the arrangement of the song—of when different instruments come in and how the whole thing is mixed, but especially the lead guitar that accompanies his vocal line in the second part and which changes key from major to minor after he delivers the line, “If I believe in something, it’s nothing nice,” which is also punctuated with a single chime. Another song that feels like the ’70s somehow, but is better for happening now. It’ll be exciting to see where this fresh new talent goes in coming years.